Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot, Mille Plateaux) scored the German/French full-length motion picture ‘Volt‘, directed by Tarek Ehlail. The film premiered in the German theaters in the beginning of the month, and now Dependent Records has released the soundtrack to live its own life. We had a little chat with Alec about scoring this rather fascinating piece of art and everything that lies beyond. You can also listen to one of the most epic tracks from the album.
You rarely ever write music for films but this is actually your second score for Tarek Ehlail, since you worked on ‘Chaostage’ as well in 2009. How did you get in touch with the director?
He got in touch with me last year in May. He was under immense time pressure because the Munich Film Festival had announced the premiere of the film. In Germany Munich and Berlin are very important film festivals. We had about 4 weeks to get the film done when he called me.
Tarek is a real outsider in the German film scene because he bypasses the system where he can.
So his films are always very different from the rest. His film “Chaostage” which means “Chaos Days” in English had hundreds of punks riot in front of the cinemas when it was shown all over Germany.
The tabloid press went crazy, too. Controversial, provocative stuff. Many Germans don’t like it when someone steps out of line.
If you would have to compare these two films in a manner of the ideas and methods you’ve worked with during the scoring, how do they relate to each other? What was the biggest difference between working on ‘Chaostage’ and working on ‘Volt’?
These are very different films. ‘Chaostage’ is set in the city of Hannover in the 90s when huge punk gatherings led to riots. We also played there once with Atari Teenage Riot. It’s like a punk film.
Burning cars, skinhead gangs and cops who are trying to get the situation under control.
But the main difference is that it’s kind of funny. ‘Volt’ is a serious film. It has a very dark atmosphere.
There is not a single bit of hope in it. Every time when you think the story will take a positive turn it leaves you feeling empty. There is that cold reality of refugee camps in the film. For those who haven’t seen it, the film is a sci-fi thriller, set in Germany. The refugee crisis has gotten out of control. Politicians have failed to solve the problem. And people have to live in large refugee zones. They are left by themselves. Every once in a while special police units go in and try to establish order. I had to write a lot of music for it. And it was all scoring to picture, very old school. To sum it up, ‘Chaostage’ was fun, ‘Volt’ was like waking up on a cold floor in a squat with no heating. A different kind of fun.
Say if I approach you tomorrow, asking you to write a score for my film… what is the most important thing that would make you accept my offer?
I am very interested in films that are different. I am not the kind of musician who does soundalikes. But I am very open.
Why I love doing this type of work is because it forces me into new directions, because I have to tell somebody else’s story with my music.
A very different creative process compared to when I write my own songs. I have to put myself in somebody else’s shoes – empathy is key here.
But it’s not only the story and the relationship with the director, it is also how the film is made, how it’s shot and so on. The good thing is that I am a huge fan of underground and indie films. These are the type of films I watch. The weird stuff. Films like Stalker, Carnival of Souls, Logan’s Run etc. The old ones of course. I always love the challenge. So I can get very excited about films that don’t have a huge Hollywood blockbuster budget.
What was your biggest challenge during writing the score?
We didn’t have much time. So I had to get into it and stay in that mode until it was all done. Day and night. Volt is the name of the lead character in the movie. A cop who kills a refugee and tries to cover it up. I don’t want to give too much away here, but Volt is under constant pressure. There is no release, it’s just tension. If he catches a moment, reality starts kicking in again and he realises that he has killed a human being and it can never be undone.
I think that’s what made the soundtrack special for many people, because it has a certain authenticity about it. Maybe that’s because I have been in protests myself, lived through crazy situations.
I had to use all of my personal experiences in political activism, clashes with the authorities. One other thing that helped was that I have been following the refugee crisis since a long time now. So I was very familiar with the topic.
Considering the situation today, the topic of ‘Volt’ is more relevant than ever, somehow this dystopian future does not really seem to be so far from us anymore. In your everyday life how do you deal with the refugee situation, is there any particular way you try to make yourself heard besides music?
I was thinking for months about how to make some sort of statement. Last year everything was spiralling out of control. Various islamist terror attacks, Brexit, the presidential elections in the US and so on… I wanted to be very careful because in my opinion a lot of very stupid stuff had been said from the Left and the Right. Sometimes people have to take a step back and cool down before they add more fuel to the fire with public statements. Especially when people’s lives are at risk. The internet and social media were making things worse. So when Tarek called me up and told me about the film, I knew this could be something for me.
Over the years we have always played shows with Atari Teenage Riot that financially supported certain political groups, played for the Anti-Fascist Action and so on…We always try to help. But our priority is the music. That’s the battle we picked and why we formed.
Last year you said “the most important thing I learned from being a touring musician: it’s the person’s mind, not the country of origin that matters”. I thought this was a really nice way to formulate your thoughts. What do you think it’d take to make people think alike? How could we push them out of their little bubbles?
We all need to remind ourselves that collectivism breeds racism and the rights of the individual must be respected and defended. Now this sounds logical but most people out there don’t act this way. Everyone puts people into these categories which never fit 100%.
We all have the tendency to do it. No person out there is only one thing. We can use music fans as a good example to explain this. When a friend of mine tells me that this new guy is a ‘metal guy’ then that piece of information immediately creates an image in my mind. Too often I have been surprised by how different things in reality actually looked like.
One thing that is very shocking in the UK in my opinion is the rise of anti-semitism amongst students.
I can’t even count all the amount of times I heard left leaning students say things like ‘the Jews run the media’ or ‘the Jews are responsible for all wars in the world’. That’s another example and these are often people well educated but they look for scapegoats, someone to blame.
This is one of my biggest critiques of how social media platforms function. The way these platforms categorise people, and the way people are forced to fit into these categories and then stay within certain lines. People tend to adapt to a bad system. It’s always dangerous to generalise groups of people. The same is true with refugees of course. I think this is why things have escalated. Incitement is very easy these days. Artists must use creativity to reverse that trend. It’s not easy and often can’t be done with one film, album or a book.
You wrote the whole ‘Volt’ score in a really short period of time, in 4-5 weeks. How did you approach the film, how did you get started on the score and what is your method when composing for an already existing visual world?
The film is set in a not so distant future in Germany. I wanted to compose music that shows the conflict, the tension between the police state and the refugee zones. So I thought, let’s take the energy of cold Berlin techno and combine it with the dark strings, inspired by Richard Wagner for the police state. For the scenes in the refugee zone, I was inspired by early 1970s jazz, when Miles Davis allowed synthesizers onto his recordings – even though the soundtrack doesn’t really sound like jazz. Industrial, distorted polyrhythmic percussion meet electronic sounds. This was my starting point.
But underneath there is always an almost quite conservative, traditional approach to film music. I don’t like trial and error stuff. Maybe I am too German when it comes to that. I had to score the film in many small steps…every scene…from scene to scene. People in society, the cops for example, they have security and jobs but are also far less free in a way than the stateless refugees who have to live in this uncertainty.
Film soundtracks are usually tricky as they lose some of their power when you’re listening to it without watching or having seen the film they belong to. I could not say that this is the case with the ‘Volt’ soundtrack even though it creates a perfect symbiosis with the pictures. I guess this was also one of the reasons why it got released?
Thanks! Yes, people in my team kept saying ‘Alec, this is like one of these dark ambient electronic albums you did in the 90s for the Mille Plateaux label! Put this out!’ So we teamed up with Dependent Records and released a double vinyl album. I personally love listening to soundtrack albums. Because at a certain point the music starts taking on its own life, disconnected from the film. People convinced me that Volt is this kind of album. Which is great for me. It’s a huge compliment.
Do you have a favourite soundtrack from another film? Which one would it be?
I have many of course. For different reasons. The Thing, Capote, Taxi Driver, Forbidden Planet, The Debt… but I also love big epic stuff like Vangelis ‘1492’.
What are your plans for this year, what are you working on currently?
Right now I am mixing a very different score for a DVD Boxset release of “My Talk With Florence” by Austrian director Paul Poet. I have been performing the score live to the film in various cities last year. Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, and a few more. This is 2 hours of music. Very different to Volt.
Very minimal, a lot of piano, and very very sad because the topic is so hard to cope with. Florence speaks into the camera about the sexual abuse and rape in the Otto Muehl commune under the banner of ‘free love’.
She was the key witness in the court case that got Otto Muehl imprisoned. A very strong woman and I have huge respect for her. I often had to stop writing and take a break and go for long walks…and think about her life, what she went through. But she fought and won.