May 18, 2011
By David Huff
Pounding The European Metal Hammer
JAM Magazine Speaks With Guitarist Richard Kruspe
Band Studio Photos Provided by the Rammstein Website
Burn, Baby, Burn! Those three words gained infamy in 1977 when the Trammps "Disc Inferno" was all the rage in dance clubs across the country. Lately burn, baby burn took on a whole new meaning with the German industrial rock band, Rammstein. When this group performs - and they are on tour in the U.S. for the first time in ten years - its lights out, flame on when they take the stage. It's not uncommon to see lead singer Till Lindemann, a licensed pyrotechnician, spend entire songs engulfed head-to-toe in flames. To say this band is hot would definitely be an understatement.
Rammstein takes their name indirectly from the German town of Ramstein-Miesenbach, the site of the 1988 flight show disaster where sixty-seven spectators and three pilots died. An additional 346 spectators sustained serious injuries in the resulting explosion and fire of the two aircraft that collided midair and tumbled to the ground. The band's signature song, "Rammstein ", is a commemoration of the sad occasion. Over the years, however, this band has gone on to symbolize more than a tragedy. It has become Germany's greatest metal export.
Ten years is a long time for any band of Rammstein's caliber to stay away from these shores. Yet the band has been quite content to just release new albums overseas from their native country, and perform shows throughout Europe. A sold-out show at Madison Square Garden last December altered their thinking. The original members of the band - Lindemann (vocals), Richard Z. Kruspe (lead guitar and backing vocals), Paul H. Landers (rhythm guitar), (backing vocals), Oliver "Ollie" Riedel (bass guitar), Christoph "Doom" Schneider (drums and electronic percussion) and Christian "Flake" Lorenz (keyboards) – are still there, and going strong after nearly three decades together.
The following interview with Rammstein founder Richard Kruspe was conducted with an interpreter on the other line. It was a first for me. When the translator started getting into the interview by interrupting and asking questions, because she was surprised by what Kruspe was saying, I knew my questions were going down a path no journalist had traveled before.
JAM: In all the years I've been interviewing bands, I have never met a group that became successful in this country without singing a word in English, yet Rammstein has done that. Despite the fact you have a translator on the phone listening, you speak excellent English, and write all of the group's music in German.
Richard Kruspe - Well, everything you just said makes perfect sense to me (laughing). For some reason, America has never been a priority for this band. We know it's the biggest market in the world, but our home is Europe, and we have been content staying put there.
JAM: Let's go back to the last time Rammstein actually toured America. The band had just released Mutter in 2001, yet your hit single, "Du Hast", from the previous album, Sehnsucht, was receiving massive airplay in this country. That disc had been released in 1997. What kind of situations was the band confronting between those two records that caused so much delay?
When we made Sehnsucht, we had fallen in love with computers, and you can hear that influence on the record. You know how it is when you are falling in love with something, you overdo it. We did too much in a way. After Sehnsucht, everything became normal. With Mutter, I tried to write songs again on the guitar, like harmonies. I was a little bit tired of all the computers we had used. I still wanted to use electronics to give the songs some flavor, but if listen to both the albums; I think Mutter is more about the songs. They are more mature. When I am composing the music, I write almost everything. I'll talk to Till about some things I'm doing, and he's pretty cool about it. He's more of a guide for me when I am trying to get some feeling inside the music.
JAM: You put a lot of effort into Mutter?
Yes. It was a really hard work. We spent three years work on the record. It was the hardest record we ever made. It was more a pressure thing. I remember we spent three months in the south of France recording, and a week in Belgium to mix the first single with our old engineer, Roland Prinz. But the song wasn't ready, and the weather was bad. We came from this beautiful place to a studio with bad vibrations and we wanted to quit, we don't want to do it anymore. Nothing worked out there. We have to make a break, went back to Berlin and decided to change engineers. We went to Sweden to a really small studio in Stockholm, and this guy named Stefan Glauman, he had a 24-track, and he was so amazing. The thing I really learned about making music was this. You never can be the best leading the music, you have to follow it. That's what Roland tried to do, create the sound, push us, but it wasn't good. Music has its own way of speaking to you.
JAM: Did the success of Sehnsucht in the United States create internal pressures within the band?
Sure, in a way because we made a mistake not touring over here in America. I heard one sentence from another artist I'll never forget. "If you get success, you have to be smart." We weren't smart after Sehnsucht. Right?
JAM: Obviously you know the answer to that already.
I knew we had to do that record right because okay, right now we have success in America, but we can go back to Germany and spend some time there and work on the record. After we came back, we realized that the American market is so far away they may have forgotten us.
JAM: In this country, no one can understand a word that Till is singing. The thing that powers the song is the guitar, the bass, the keyboards and the drums. The words are irrelevant. So, where are you getting pressure from? It's your sound that is doing all the talking and not the vocals themselves.
Not sure what you are saying (translator speaks to him in German). Okay, I see.
JAM: Listen Richard, three years to make an album is a long time. The markets change a lot during those times.
First off, we are German. We have to be perfect in everything we do. That's the problems with Germans. They need time with everything. We sit and talk, then sit and talk some more. We are a little bit inflexible when it comes to making things get done in a quick fashion, but in the end we get it right. American methods are so fast in a way. They go into a studio, write some songs then go back on tour. We have to sit down, we have to talk, we have to make the right decision and it takes time. To answer your question, we don't care about time. Our main market is Germany and Europe.
Yes, that is true. That is why it is really important for us that the lyrics are the right way. To get back to your question about language, when I was 13, I couldn't understand English at all. I was always listening to English and American music, but I couldn't understand the words. It didn't matter. I could feel the energy and tell if it was a good song or a bad song.
JAM: You felt the music, which basically is the thing that drives rock and roll, with lyrics usually being an afterthought.
Well, I also learned that the voice is an instrument as well. That's the thing with Rammstein. We try to create music that fits the German language. If you can create music that fits your language, it doesn't matter when you take the music to other parts of the world. In a weird way, people will understand you. I remember a gig we did in Mexico one time, and there were like 12,000 people singing along with the music, and I know they couldn't understand any of our words. It doesn't matter. They could feel it, and they were interested in what we were doing. Rammstein is more about the feelings in the songs.
JAM: Rammstein destroyed the myth I always believed that if a band couldn't sing their lyrics in English, they were doomed as a band.
We have proven that wrong to you I think.
JAM: You grew up in East Germany listen to English and American music on the radio. When you were playing in bands over there, did you ever try to attempt anything in English and it just didn't fit with what you were wanting to say musically?
We tried one time to sing in English. For example, we did a cover version of a Depeche Mode song "Stripped". It was the first English song we ever released as a band. When we would sing in English, I would write the music that fit the language. One time the record company, London, they tried to put our music to English lyrics. We said okay give it a try. The American deejays decided to play the original versions. You cannot write a song and change the language. It doesn't work. It's like you have a Japanese car, you can't take the engine out and put a German motor in it. To answer the question, if we sang in English, Rammstein would make a different kind of music.
JAM: Have you felt at times, your stage show was overshadowing what you were going musically?
Sure, sure. I always thought sometimes everything has to be in balance, the music and the show. There is always going to be a debate as to what is more important, and it's a thin line. If people only started coming to see us because of the stage show, and not the music, then I would give up. The live show is important, and I love to entertain people, but it's the music, not what they see on stage, that's important. Right now it is a good balance. We talk about this in the band by the way. We have members that are more responsible for our stage show, and members that are more responsible for the music. So there's always a little fight going on in the band.
JAM: Had the five or six of you grown up in West Germany as opposed to East Germany, do you think the music, and your outlook on life itself, would be different today?
Yes it would. First of all, West Germany was like America to us. Many West German musicians are influenced by American music. East Germans were also more influenced by American music, but there was a wall between us. We couldn't get the records. We had to tape things, or buy them on the black market for hundreds of marks, and they were from Russia actually. The culture in East Germany was more Russian than anything else. If you talk about our image, and how we make videos and photos, it would be completely different if we had been in West Germany.
JAM: The last German band I interviewed like Rammstein was Nitzerebb, the industrial rock band that came out the same time your band appeared. Did that type of music have any influence on your band when you got together and started playing?
Actually, as a kid growing up, my influence was heavy metal on one side and pop music on the other. In metal, I was missing the melodies in the songs. In pop music, I was missing the aggressiveness that metal has. What I wanted to do as a kid was combine these things. I was afraid to tell my friends I was listening to Depeche Mode. I loved the band. I loved their melodies. That's why in Rammstein, you can hear a lot of melodies in our music. I think Rammstein is a pop / metal thing. I was influenced Led Zeppelin, Kiss, AC/DC and Black Sabbath. In the same token, I was fascinated by electronic techno music. It was huge in Germany, and it gave our country a little bit of confidence back when it came to establishing a musical identity.
JAM: The boy band explosion in this country, Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, its musical roots go back to German songwriters. Sometimes, I don't know what to make of the music that comes from your country.
Yes I know. That's a shame isn't it? Here's the funny thing about our two countries. In the United States, they love Rammstein for the hard stuff we play. In Germany, they love Rammstein for the melodies in our music.
JAM: You mentioned earlier that Europe is more of a market to Rammstein than the United States. Why do you feel that way?
No, what I meant is our main market is Europe. For instance, we sold 1.4 million Mutter records in Europe when it was first released. In the U.S., we sold maybe 400,000, and this country is bigger.
JAM: You are concerned about how your music will go over in your homeland, but in order to really become a global band, you can't worry about one particular market because you have the whole world to deal with it. Does that alter your approach to music, and is that perhaps why you are so careful when creating music for an album?
Could be, that's a very good question. There was a time where we thought, as a band, that we need a song for America. This kind of thought is something all European bands have to deal with. I remember when we recorded our first record, we were really naïve. However, for a band to be naïve, I think it's the best thing because you don't think about what you are doing for other people. You are just doing your stuff. There were thoughts in our heads at times that we had to turn some songs more into an American direction. That question comes up when we make an album. Of course, maybe that is one reason it takes us so long between albums, because we thought we had to have a song like this for a specific market. For a German speaking band, creating music is more complicated than an English speaking band. If you have success in America, normally that means you have success in Europe. But if you have success in Germany, that doesn't mean you have success in America. You have to go play and get in front of people to get your message across. Maybe you are right, there was a little pressure.
JAM: On the other hand, with "Du Hast" still being a very successful single in this country, and propelling the rest of Rammstein's albums sales in America, has it been a relief, somewhat to know your music has overcome the language barrier?
The biggest problem actually, for example, if you realize it doesn't work so well with a record, what you do is blame yourself. The problem with us was this. We didn't have American management to guide us through the country. We realized that on our last tour of your country ten years ago. The American market is so different from the European market. When we started touring this country, I'd visit retail places and the Mutter album wasn't even out. That was a problem.
JAM: It has been 22 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Have the musical barriers between musicians in East and West Germany fallen as well?
There are still differences between East and West. What happened after the wall came down, all the interesting musicians left West Berlin because the city stopped being interesting. U2 had recorded there, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, but after awhile, for example techno was such a big thing in West Berlin. Young musicians came back to Berlin from all over Europe because the city was united. But to answer the question between East and West, there was a difference that is hard to describe. There is something in the culture that even though we speak the same language, we don't speak the same language. I cannot describe it better.
JAM: Is it because of the conditions people were brought up in most their lives is hard to escape?
Yeah, sure! For instance, if we had a problem in East Germany, then we would take care of it ourselves. In West Germany, they call someone out to fix it. East Germans are different and it's hard to explain. It's not that we are better, or worse, just different. In music, like I mentioned earlier, West Germany music was influenced by America and didn't have its own style.
JAM: Richard, when you were playing in bands in East Germany before the wall fell, weren't you playing American music too? Isn't that what you learned as a kid?
Yes and no. The first time I played it was like punk music. Then when the Wall came down in the beginning, when I could buy all the records I wanted, I was in a band that was influenced Faith No More, 247-Spyz. All of the sudden I tried to copy American music. I went to California for two months and realized it was a lie what I was doing. I told the band I didn't want to do it. I didn't have the mentality, or the culture, and I wanted to do something with Germany in mind. That's the reason I created Rammstein.
JAM: When you did create the band in the early '90s, rock and roll in American had been buried by the alternative music scene that swept through this country. Rock and roll was basically a dead concept here. When you are starting your band, do you really have any idea what direction you want to go musically?
I had something on my mind. The first deal was to put machines and live musicians playing stuff together. The second idea was to make rhythm music that Germans could play. For example, I wanted to create German music with a simple beat backed by hard guitar playing.
JAM: I am surprised that bands like Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails, didn't have an affect on you when you put Rammstein together?
Actually, they did. Ministry was a big influence on me. I always thought that when I listened to Ministry, especially the song "Psalm 69". I initially thought the song must be German. Later on the band became too noisy and stopped being real to me.
JAM: Do you find yourself experimenting a lot musically when it comes to make a new album?
Bands have to change so they don't get bored. Rammstein is no different. When you live with an album for two years, including the writing, recording and touring, you get bored; you want to do something else. You want to change the direction of your sound. On the other hand, you don't change out your instruments, so you want to tweak the formation. You don't want to change many things too much because what you created in the first place led to your success. It's complicated to make the right choices when selecting the music to release. You have to change some things, obviously, because as people, band members change with time. But it's a thin line. Personally, the band I thought did the best at changing themselves was Depeche Mode. If you follow there career, it's excellent.
JAM: Because you are based in Germany, is radio a factor in the success of a band? As a songwriter, is it difficult to balance those two worlds when creating music?
In America, you have all different types of radio. In Germany, we don't have that. It wasn't a factor in my country. When I write songs, I don't care about what's going on around me on the radio. Songs have to work for me. I have to have a movie in my mind. If I listen to a song, it has to tell me a story. If I see that movie, then it works and I don't care what other people think. When it comes to lyrics, for example, we figured "'Du Hast" would work in America because it was a simple song. The lyrics, "'Du Hast, 'Du Hast, 'Du Hast," we figured it was simple enough for the American audiences to understand it. The problem with America is you don't have a singles market, but we do in Europe.
JAM: Members of Rammstein once taped an MTV producer to a chair and set off a smoke bomb. What happened there?
It's a long story I'll make short. Once upon a time there was MTV Germany. They decided not to air one of our videos, "Angel". They had problem with us because they though Rammstein had joined a right wing political cause because of the imagery in the video. They wouldn't air. It was a hit single for the band, yet MTV Germany refused to play it. We called this guy out whose decision it was not to play the video. We wanted to talk about this and fix the problem. The guy started asking about the music, but he manipulated my answers to humiliate me. A little bit later, we saw the same guy at the Hurricane music festival. He was smiling at me like he had pulled one over on us. I was so mad at this asshole; I spoke to my manager and told him to tell the guy to come over so we can talk. We put him in a chair, the band surrounded him, and we had our little talk.
JAM: Were you surprised that Till set himself on fire during a concert?
JAM: For guitarist you need a great vocalist to compliment your skills with the instrument. Was it difficult to find the right singer for you?
Til was my first choice. He was an old friend of mine who was a basket weaver. I heard him singing along on the radio to pop songs, and I was listening to him through a door. I thought, "Man, this guy has a really strong voice." When I put Rammstein together, I remembered him. At first, Till was little bit shy to sing. But his voice fit in with what I was hoping to do with the band.
JAM: What about adding another guitarist to the band, that can be tricky?
It's complicated, and I'll tell you why. The biggest ego in the band is always the guitar player. Paul is actually my total opposite. I say white, he'll say black. We are completely the opposite. It's really hard at times, but others, we compliment each other beautifully.
JAM: Does this silent competition between you two help you focus on writing really good songs as opposed to being lazy about it?
Sure. The thing is, right now we realize I am more talented in writing music, and he's more talented in producing. Right now, his biggest talent is telling you when you're shitty. When I bring a song to the band and he hears it, Paul will just say, "It's not good. Try it again." He is real good at finding your weakness. We've been together for years, so we all know each other's strength and weakness.
JAM: Growing up in America, I take for granted the things you found difficult to obtain, or deal, with growing up. What was it like growing up and living in East Germany here before the Berlin Wall fell?
It was interesting. It was almost like an adventure park where you have to balance certain lines. You had to beat the system. You always had to come up with something to beat the system. And of course with us being forced to stay home, because we couldn't travel, there was a certain closeness we shared, a certain relationship created between people that I have never really felt anywhere ever again.
JAM: Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell, and how did you feel about it?
I escaped out of East Berlin in 1988. I left East Berlin because musically, I didn't have too many people to make music with. Three months before The Wall came down, there were demonstrations going on. There was a new political party called New Forum. One evening, I was trying to meet a friend, and I came out from a substation. All of the sudden, I was surrounded by police and they took me on a truck to a police station where I spent three days inside. I was placed against a wall, and if I moved, I got hit on the back. They interviewed me about New Forum, and I told them I didn't know who they are. The police didn't believe me. After three days of going through hell, I decided I had to leave, I had to get out and go from East Berlin to West Berlin.
JAM: How did you do that?
I travelled to Hungary and I walked to a border. I was by myself. It took three days to prepare myself physically to get ready for the journey. I had to exercise, run, I really trained myself. I followed the route refugees took to get out of the country. I came in on a rainy night. When I arrived, I had lost everything. I lost my friends, family and I was afraid. The good thing about East Germany was you always had a feeling that someone cared for you. I had no relatives in the West Germany.
JAM: Isn't Berlin in East Germany?
JAM: So how exactly did you get into West Berlin?
Well, there were planes from West Germany to Berlin. The West territory was right in the middle of East Germany, like an island surrounded by water. If I wanted to go to West Berlin, I couldn't travel by land because a wall divided the city. The only chance anyone had at that particular time to get to the other side of Berlin was to get there by first going through Hungary, then on to a West Germany refugee camp. At the camp, they ask were would you want to go. I said West Berlin. So they flew me into West Berlin. The funny thing is, I ended up just a few meters where I had originally been before my escape.
JAM: Did you have to have papers to get into W. Berlin?
All I had was pictures of my family.
JAM: What did you do when you first got there?
I was sad. The first night I was at a club. It was scary. Then I was looking for another band to make music with. I found somebody, but it didn't work out. Then three months later the Wall came down. They opened it by accident. I don't know if you remember, but there was this guy in East Germany, a journalist who walked to the border and asked if he could go through. The guard said it wasn't a problem any more and he went to the other side. When people in West Berlin found out about it, they went to the border. I went to the border separating West and East Berlin. I was scared to go try it. I took one step toward East Berlin, then immediately stepped back. I then took two steps forward, and stepped back again. It was kind of funny. People were so excited. The energy was so high at this time. It was a milestone. Forty years this had gone on.
JAM: When you are in a refugee camp, do they send you to places where you can stay for awhile? Obviously you don't have any money.
The thing is, you have to have an address to go to in West Berlin, or you can't get into that part of the city. I had an address from a friend of mine in East Berlin, where if I had to stay for a week or so, this person would take me in. I called her up, and asked if I could stay with her. I explained the story of this guy who gave me her number, and she said of course I can stay. She gave me a room for a week. Then I looked for another room in the same house. This was my first experience in communal living.
JAM: Where did you work?
Well, I didn't work.
JAM: Then what did you do for money?
I used a trick. I was studying music in East Germany. Before I left, a friend of mine gave me papers that said I was a music teacher, but it wasn't true. I studied music by playing the guitar, so it was easy to convince them I knew what I was doing. All the sudden I was an unemployed music teacher in West Berlin. I was able to get money from their government for unemployment. The West Germans would recognize you worked in East Germany if you were able to get over to them. So they gave me unemployment and I had money to put a band together. If you are smart, the social system in Germany is pretty good, and you can get the money to live on.
JAM: What prompted you to go back to East Berlin? You had just been arrested, escaped through Hungary, and basically were free.
Well, I stopped being scared. There was complete anarchy going on at the time in East Germany. People were crossing the border by the thousands, going back and forth from East to West, West to East Berlin. You could go into East Berlin, where there were like hundreds of empty apartments, and just take one. People in East Berlin were so excited to escape over into the West, they did it by the thousands. They left their apartments behind. Well, the smart people from the West walked back into East Berlin, and found those empty apartments and just moved into them. You could still go back and forth, only now you had a place to live. People were partying all over the place, and, you didn't have to pay for your apartment.
JAM: Who started Rammstein with you exactly?
Oliver and Christoph.
JAM: So the guitarist naturally builds his band with the bass player and the drummer.
They were with me in East Germany before I left. We met up in West Berlin when the Wall went down. I knew Oliver's father from years ago. . I got his number and called him. I knew his father from years ago. I called him and we met up. All Oliver wanted to do was talk about the old times.
JAM: Was he still friends with Christoph?
They didn't know each other. I played with Christoph in a band called Die Firma.
JAM: As a guitarist, why would you want another guitarist in the band?
I have no ideal. I worked with Paul, when I did my first band. He was the producer and engineer. I liked how he thought about the music. He was my other part. We complimented each other. When he got into the band, then it became a problem. He wasn't a threat, but it became a competition. But I believe deeply that this combination is a good one.
JAM: When you presented the material to Paul, for instance, say Mutter, and he realized it was going to be a guitar driven album, did you become good friends then?
The thing about Paul is he's all about the song. In the end, it doesn't matter who writes the music, it's all about the band. Everyone has to agree when I come up with music and lyrics. The song has to go through the whole Rammstein process. It's hard and painful. When I put a demo together, they destroy everything. You have to turn a deaf ear to what they are saying.
JAM: Is it easy to set aside your ego if the rest of the band doesn't agree with the music you presented them?
No, it's hard, but I am learning. Rammstein is like therapy. You learn your strengths and your weaknesses. The good thing about this band is if you take the music too far in one direction, they quickly pull you back. That's good, I like it. The pressure isn't on us anymore.