Swedish songsmith Jens Lekman tours his first album in a half-decade — the eclectic and sensual “Life Will See You Now” — to Portland’s Revolutionary Hall this Friday.
Interview and story by Brandy Crowe and Nicholas Edge
Since their inception in 1980, Laibach became revolution as resource in Slovenia. The title Laibach itself is the German translation for the capital city, Ljubljana, a nod to the WWII occupation of Yugoslavia. Their mission seems to be inspired by the war torn history of their home, as well it’s people working in mining and thermal energy industries, expanding into global issues.
The group’s first albums began with machine rhythms and grinding factory noises (thus coined “industrial”) along with growling murmurs that sparked controversy. As part of Laibach Art Collective NSK they also made films and politically charged projects. Over the years their music progressed with layers of instrumentation and versatility, and added the operatic Mina Spiler to frontman Milan Fras’s deep growl. The projection of Laibach’s political themes can be hard to read for a Laibach newcomer. They use anthemic neo-classical styles of war marches. They wear military uniforms. They named an album NATO and say “Europe is Falling Apart”. Through the dark truths, however, they keep a smirk; They have done covers of Europe’s “Final Countdown” and new album Spectre deals with Wall Street and Ed Snowden in somewhat sunny, still stompy, synthy, electronic dance music.
Is it satire? Some of it, as they are having fun confounding their leaders and audiences. But they are calling for equality and autonomy in a world that is constantly in power struggles with it’s leaders. Laibach are dissident, independant artists. In the same way that political powers put up red tape they defend their message and continue to spread it, coming full circle to the issues of today. Their current tour brings them back to North America and to Portland for the first time since 2008.
What is the message of Laibach?
Laibach: Equality, Brotherhood, Freedom and Justice for all. All that with some good music and wine of course.
How is this message important to the times we live in, now?
L: This message is important in all times.
In your early years, public appearances and the use of the name Laibach, were forbidden in Yugoslavia? How did you continue to perform? What is the state of your home today?
L: Our name was forbidden between 1983 – 1987, but they forgot to forbid our symbol (the black cross), therefore we did shows and actions without the name, using only symbol on our posters. Later, in 1984, we created ‘extended Laibach’, with several groups from other medias (theatre, painters, architects, filmmakers, philosophers, designers, etc.) who expanded Laibach aesthetics within their medias. The name of this creative union and movement was Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art). Neue Slowenische Kunst existed till 1992, when all the members decided to create the NSK State. Today Laibach is performing all over Slovenia without trouble.
What is the NSK State?
L: Between 1990 and 1992, with the emergence of a new political, ideological and economic reorganization of Europe (the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, the decline of the Eastern bloc, war in Yugoslavia and the birth of new national entities), Neue Slowenische Kunst reinvented itself, changing from an organization into a State. The reason for the creation of the NSK State was to keep Utopia alive in a time of great expectations. The NSK State is an abstract organism, a Suprematist body, installed in a real social and political space as a sculpture comprising the body warmth, spirit and work of its citizens. NSK confers the status of a State not to territory but to the mind, whose borders are in a state of flux. Besides the members of the historic NSK, thousands of people have NSK citizenship around the world – people of different religions, races, nationalities, sexes and beliefs. The right to citizenship is acquired through the ownership of an NSK passport. Today the NSK State already has more citizens than the Vatican. Laibach however does not practice control over the State, but we call upon citizens to create the substance of the State by themselves.”
As an art collective, you have incorporated art, theater, and film. Your music is very cinematic. You recently collaborated with film director Milo Rau?
L: Yes, Milo Rau, a Swiss-German director invited us to participate in his theatre production The Dark Ages, which, according to Mr. Rau, was partly inspired by Laibach. We did a remake of a song Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves (by Oscar Wilde) specifically for this play and on his request. We also did the rest of the music for the play, which is all based on this one song. This play was the second part of Europa trilogy, where Milo Rau focuses on the dark history of Europe in the process of unifying. Actors from Bosnia, Germany, Russia and Serbia tell their stories of displacement and homelessness, of departure and arrival, of dedication and despair. Biographical close-ups in “The Civil Wars” are painting an intimate tableau of a continent, which has been broken repeatedly, in a manner of a political psychoanalysis of our time.
What was your reason for providing the music to “Iron Sky” and the in- production “Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race” movies?
L: Iron Sky film director Timo Vuorensola wanted to work with us for a long time, because him and the other creators of the film were also inspired by Laibach when they started to put the idea for Iron Sky together – apparently in the Finnish sauna, where all great ideas are born in Finland. They approached us first already a few years ago, when we were on tour in Scandinavia. Later Timo visited Slovenia and we had several meetings before we decided about the final collaboration. We liked the idea of the film a lot – Nazis on the moon, definitely – that’s interesting enough by itself. But in fact this film has many layers; it strongly relates to Chaplin’s Great Dictator, extremely important film that basically works through persiflage and uses – for us – very relevant (and very laibachian) method of ‘over-identification’. Even the structure and narration in both films are similar. Chaplin released The Great Dictator in 1940 and although it had been banned in many parts of Europe, it represented the beginning of an end of Hitler’s era. (Hitler himself was a big fan of Chaplin and his mustaches, and has definitely seen the Great Dictator, but unfortunately it has not being recorded what was his reaction on the film). Iron Sky cleverly uses a reference on Chaplin within the film.
How did you end up working on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket?
L: It was a pure coincidence – if you believe in coincidences when Laibach is in question; Kubrick was looking for extras, performing as soldiers and we were in London at that time, had nothing else to do, we already looked like soldiers, dressed in (Yugoslav) military uniforms and behaving like soldiers. We joined his ‘army’, along with friends from the group Last Few Days, with whom we did the Occupied Europe Tour 83’ together. It was a pleasure to be part of that film. We had to do some daily physical training, staying in the army barracks for almost a month, the food was good and the payment was not bad either. We even meet Kubrick on the set, but unfortunately there was no chance to get into a proper talk with him then. It surely was a pleasure to be part of that film.
You have always been politically ambiguous, even on the WAT album, where there seems to be more hints. What made you decide to show your political colours with Spectre?
L: Spectre deals with politics and with formation of political consciousness in the turbulent times. There is a strong appraisal of political consciousness going on in Europe and elsewhere in the world, people are fed up of existing political and economical establishment and want to take power in their own hands, bringing back dignity and solidarity into social relations of their everyday lives. We can only support them in this fight plus we can bring back some political relevance and dignity into pop culture at the same time. The entertaining industry should entertain, but it should also take its own part of responsibility for the general social and political situation in the world. The majority of popular culture today is completely lost and useless in all aspects, especially when it comes to the basic questions of social justice and politics. Banality is the only statement that rock and pop artists are able to produce clear enough. That is why entire pop culture is losing importance, not to mention its sense and sensibility.
What if Snowden was president?
L: America would become a Promised Land of the Free and a respected nation again.
How do you counter controversial questions surrounding that you are communist, naziist, neo-fascist, or extremist?
L: We don’t counter them; we are everything everybody wants us to be. And we are nothing of that.
What kind of challenges have you faced in your tours? Have you ever received threats?
L: There were many challenges and threats, but Laibach cannot be offended and it need not to defend itself.
Why pick German as your primary performance language instead of your native Slovenian? Was it to appeal to a wider audience, or was it another way to needle the authorities in a pre-break-up Yugoslavia?
L: German is only one of the languages we use to express ourselves. We do not have a primary language, but we use Slovenian, German, French, Italian, Russian, English, Japanese, Polish, Norwegian, etc. We’ve only used German for certain songs for which we believed that they sound better in German. Every language has its special sound, rhythm, melody, structure and meaning and the choice of language have always been important for Laibach.
How did you merge into using English?
L: Language is a powerful tool – it makes man free and it helps him to enslave others. The root function of language is to control the universe by describing it. Naming things is the first step of ownership. A shared language is often used as a basic defining feature of a nation. In some cases the language is exclusive to the nation, and may be central to the national identity, especially with the small nations. English language is one of the most powerful weapons of Anglo-American cultural imperialism and with its dominant over-presence it does represent a serious treat to the conception of cultural equality of all the nations, especially within EU. All other cultural practice is understood as a “foreign language achievement, as a kind of exotic excess, an “alternative” to the main stream. Popular culture is therefore ‘universal language” only if it is in one way or another translated into English. Laibach is using English – but the way we do it, we make no favour to it.
You have done many popular covers, like on your album NATO, as well as Volk, your interpretation of national anthems. How do you use these songs to change the context of their meanings?
L: A lot was told about our covers and interpreting methods in the past. Interpretation can make a significant difference and that is what we are doing – making the difference, recycling popular culture and historic material, and recontextualizing it. Our criteria in choosing songs are very flexible; we are mainly interested in those that find us by themselves instead of those that we have to look for. A good song to cover should have potential of a ‘schizophrenic character’ (somewhat like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), so we can bring out the ‘hidden’ content.
Have other artists asked to cover your original material?
L: Constantly, but it’s impossible to cover Laibach, because Laibach is already covering itself.
Are there any other musicians or artists that you are collaborating with or would like to collaborate with?
L: Plenty of them, but we cannot name only the few. Laibach is an open platform for collaborations of all kind.
What do you think industrial music, or the music industry, is headed?
L: Into the abyss of nothingness, so it seems. Which is not that bad after all. It’s a terrible industry, destroying everything and everybody that comes close to it (with some exceptions, of course).
For those who are new to Laibach, or have never been to a Laibach show, what can be expected for the live performance?
L: The less they expect – the more they will get; let them enjoy discovering Laibach from scratch.
Laibach plays the Wonder Ballroom 5/28.
-Interview by Brandy Crowe and Nicholas Edge