Few women in music can compare to Nic Endo, the modular synth-warping magi behind the classic Nineties album, Cold Metal Perfection, and beloved comrade of Berlin’s enduring digital hardcore pioneers, Atari Teenage Riot. As Atari’s frontwoman, a vanguard architect of experimental noise, and as an activist, feminist, and socially-conscious aesthetic icon, she is something of a patron saint to the Nightvision world, and a significant influence on why we even exist as evangelists of extreme ideas in electronica and beyond. Much the way The Knife have made a point of stressing that their vital new album, Shaking The Habitual, became a reality only AFTER they found a political purpose for it, Endo’s music has always been experienced as a very personal ideology in action. Where Atari Teenage Riot express dissent for an imbalanced, hierarchical society through unapologetically direct lyrics, Endo’s abrasive solo work is more about strategically forcing the listener into emotional dissonance; both are confrontational, but hers gets under your skin, quite literally.
With crucial electronic acts pushing the usual apolitical genre dialogue towards a newly sharpened political awareness, it makes sense that Endo recently re-released a newly mastered version of Cold Metal Perfection; long a cult favorite of devoted harsh noise/ outre electronic fans, its also become a paradigm of proudly individualistic enterprise, and a sonic response to her own Fatal Feminist Manifesto.. And that’s really what makes Endo so admirable: she’s proof that art in action will always be a more effective catalyst for real change than polite diegetic contemplation. We are honored to enjoy a lengthy conversation with her about gender, technology — and the tenuous relationship between those factors — as well as her unique musical process, and why music (still) is one of man’s most powerful weapons.
Why did you decided to remaster and release Cold Metal Perfection recently?
At the time Cold Metal Perfection was released the loudness war had not started yet. A year later, the technology was in place and everyone started pushing and pushing it. I am glad that we didn’t redo it back then. With the technology that is now available the mastering can be done much more in favour of the music. I wanted to make the album sound more present, by bringing out the coloration and the character of the original tapes. The remastered album does not only sound louder, but it also still conveys an atmospheric analogue feel, while having more depth as well as having more space and clarity now. It sounds a lot more ‘multi-layered/dimensional’. I’m very happy with the way it’s been mastered now.
What stands out to you most about that release, 13 years later?
What still stands out to me is the Stravinsky piece ‘The Rites of Spring’. I performed this back then with an orchestra in a classical music venue in the Netherlands and it was amazing. We were able to match my mostly digital sound patterns with the orchestra musicians. This project proved to be a bit tricky, because classically trained musicians can be quite attuned to a more conservative and conventional approach and are usually not very open to experiments like that. I had witnessed Alec’s collaboration with Björk and the Brotzki Quartet, and the string ensemble wasn’t able to play to what Alec had written and programmed. He tried to fix it and find ways, but back then the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make it flow in a musical way. So, initially, I didn’t have high hopes, but it worked out really well in my case.
The whole album has become sort of a cult record - many influential musicians and artists had contacted me over the years and told me how much they loved it. I see Cold Metal Perfection in the tradition of New York No Wave and early Seventies synth music. But then there is all the digital hardware gear that I’ve used to make this album, like the last generation of samplers before laptops took over. I don’t think it fits in any category.
What does the name ‘cold metal perfection’ refer to? Does it describe an overall aesthetic that defines your work as an artist and performer?
It describes the atmosphere of the album for me in close connection with the artwork. The photo was taken by Kevin Cummins who did the legendary Joy Division shots, by the way. All elements create this little world once you get drawn into it, something happens. That’s what people have told me again and again over all the years.
The album is now experienced and regarded by many as feminist noise manifesto. Is that something you hoped to achieve with it at the time and do you view it that way now?
It’s nice to hear that. I wrote the Fatal Feminist manifesto about a year before I started to work on Cold Metal Perfection. There was a moment when it felt like we could all define what us women can explore in electronic music. I wanted to show people that I don’t fit the image that the press created of ‘female’ electronic music by focusing too much on the Le Tigre /Chicks On Speed/Peaches package. They drew a picture of girls picking up electronic gear and playing it like children. Don’t get me wrong, this all originated from the Lo-Fi DIY scene of the Nineties.
But the way the mainstream rock press presented women hitting a tiny kid’s keyboard with 12 keys and a Casio drum machine, while big acts like Chemical Brothers or Prodigy were ‘leading’ the dance scene, just completely distorted the reality of what was going on back then. Forward to the middle of the decade and you see the damage. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have created this record at a later point because there was not that same enthusiasm around anymore. That really affects you. What interests me the most is when women explore the extremes in music - by ‘extremes’ I mean looking at it from the pop music perspective.
It upsets me when people assume most women only want to approach electronic music on a surface, pop level and not really delve deeper into the technical side. Why do you think this is?
Being skilled and controlling the technical side of electronic music is not a ‘male’ thing. Nobody should feel limited to make electronic music only based on some ‘gut instinct’, because they’re female. Electronic music is about brains. It is about the quality of the music, what the music conveys and the person, who created it. I would like to see music, like any other art form and craft perceived and criticized based on these premises only and not by gender. Labeling music coming from women as ‘female electronic music’ or ‘female rap music’, as if they were a genre of their own, in my opinion, has done more damage than good.
We must show that girls and woman are already strong driving forces. It feels great, when I meet girls at shows who tell me that the album has inspired them, because it shows them, that it is possible to go down that path. I always saw CMP only as a first step. Hopefully others will add to it and further develop it.
Did you originally turn to music out of a need to create sound or as a medium to use to express emotional/social ideas?
I’ve never felt any calling whatsoever to make music in the first place. I took classical piano lessons for years, starting at a young age. I was mostly playing/performing classical compositions and it was all more of a technical and theoretical practice. But joining Atari Teenage Riot in 1996 really kickstarted and engaged my interest in electronic music. I was curious and wanted to know about how you create music with machines, how to express emotions and ideas by creating synthesized sounds and programming arrangements with computers, that’s what eventually drove me to create music myself. I believe that all music is inevitably coded with emotional notions and social ideas of the person who created it. I’m half Japanese, half American, but lived most of my life in Germany. I’ve been exposed to racism and sexism more than once in my life. Often the subtle attacks are the worst, but I never saw myself as a victim. These are some of the topics and experiences, among other influences, that I process in my own music, as well as in ATR, but in a different way and style.
Why is music still an effective weapon?
Just because people are confused due to the overload of too much of music online, doesn’t mean that music lost its power as a medium. It’s a temporary problem - creatives are under attack, more than ever before. If you are a film maker, photographer, author…we all face the same challenges.
How has the internet changed the way you and Alec create? Is it more helpful than harmful or vice versa?
It hasn’t changed the way I create music. Okay, it’s maybe easier to update or download software, things like that, but the creativity itself is something that happens when and while you’re disconnected from it all, anyway. What has changed is how other people seem to value music. Often I get the impression that it has no value at all for them. That is very negative. Corporations like Google seem to base their whole business on the idea that creative people must be creative and they will always give in. Many people have a very outdated and Christian view, which is basically that the starving artist is the one that is pure at heart and has to sacrifice everything for the people, the fans.
I’m a very introverted person and this whole constant self promotion that musicians are forced into these days is something I can’t stand, because fans, media and music industry people spend more time looking at social media stats than actually listening to the music. The stats are saying nothing - they are irrelevant, because they don’t contain enough data and are too often manipulated. When one is programming a BBC Radio 1 playlist and is deciding on the basis of YouTube views, if a song fits or targets the right ‘demographic’, that is nuts! And basically just shows how desperate everyone is these days.
It’s interesting how democratizing access to all kinds of music hasn’t actually invigorated mainstream curiosity in more challenging sounds and artists. People still mainly consume what’s marketed to them by default.
It’s not all bad or all good - it’s more like the bad shit got even worse and is reaching new lows on even a wider level. Interestingly enough, Alec asked me the other day in the studio “What was actually so bad about the ‘old’ business model? When you didn’t get signed you started your own label. And those who didn’t get it together are not better off these days either.” That made me think. It’s true… All this stuff that people praised so much about Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails ‘new’ distribution models, which was basically the artist putting it out independently from the big label, was already done decades before by punk and reggae artists, for example. It’s interesting that in 2013 we don’t hear anything anymore about ‘new’ distribution models and most bands are trying to get ‘properly’ signed again. The way journalism is under attack because of the way things work online is scary. The same goes for music and film makers. We all need the independents to flourish because over the past decades the most innovative things came from them. But right now they get crushed on all levels, which on the other hand has an impact on the creativity itself.
At the same time, Alec in particular has really utilized the Internet as a creative means to distribute ATR’s music, as well as his own; it also seems to suit him as a platform for progressing a dissenting cultural dialogue in a meaningful direction, and to new audiences.
Alec is a bit different, he is online all the time while he’s making music, like he hangs out in IRC chats or has Twitter open while he is recording guitars or making beats. I would never do that. I witnessed how he deleted 4 finished songs after we heard someone of the German Pirate Party speak on TV about taking away the right for musicians to earn money and taxing people to then have the government pay musicians if they apply for it. Alec looked at me and said “We both heard my songs, and remember them - these guys will never ever access them.” Then he erased them. For me as an artist the feedback from real fans, real people, real friends or family is often why I create. That was no different before everyone used the Internet.
What do you think the future of the internet will be?
It’s dark. We had our chance as human beings to really change our society towards the better. The internet is becoming a giant spying machine that lets governments and corporations access our personal data. That is dangerous. We wrote the song ‘Digital Decay’ about that. I find myself not even taking my smart phone with me because it’s a tracking device. Anonymity will be a must. Those who don’t understand the mechanisms and what they will lead to, will be the victims. We saw during the financial crisis that the incompetence of people in power is a huge danger. Now, why do we give people like that a key to our bedrooms?
What role(s) will music serve in that digital future?
The way they see it is that music is just a mule to generate clicks for ads. This will create the worst of the worst music. For us, music is a carrier of ideas and information. This will be become even more important. Music has always been about connecting people. The question we must ask ourselves is “Why should we connect? What is our purpose?”
Is the concept of ‘sci-fi’ and ‘dystopia’ relevant to ATR and to yourself - and why?
That’s an interesting question. Usually that comes after we already created the music and the artwork. For us it is definitely the present, the now. I think you can really hear this in our music. It’s all about “Let’s do this now!” and less about “…In a galaxy far away we should maybe do this …”, you know. Berlin in the Nineties…that’s when dystopia was real. When thousands of fans start a moshpit to white noise, that is sci-fi and it already happened.
A lot of ATR’s lyrics and videos deal with human beings’ dualistic relationship to technology. How do you see technology merging with music even further?
When a DJ like Deadmau5 or David Guetta is putting in one CD and presses start for a 70min set, it can’t even get further than this. Next thing is the ‘artist’ won’t be in the same room with the audience. We played our last show in Berlin in surround, which was an was awesome experience. Of course it has been done before, but in our context it was an experience on a whole different level. The computer can offer you a randomization of a beat for example, but it’s not the same when you program the chaos yourself. It’s really about if the person is interesting, has something interesting to communicate to the listener. Technology is just the means - if that’s a wooden flute or the latest software.
Who are men and women whose minds, actions, and art you truly admire?
There are too many to mention here, but a few from the top of my head are: Emma Goldmann, Malcom X, Rei Kawakubo, Simon De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maya Deren, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard…
What do you wear to feel powerful?
I actually feel powerful, and by that I mean being and feeling confident and self-aware. I wear black mostly and I’m most comfortable in a minimal outfit consisting of pants and shirt blouse, plateau shoes or high heels, hardly any accessories. I enjoy wearing scents and make-up, always. To my mind, fashion can enhance and amplify an attitude and a genuine personality, but it can’t disguise or change anything about the way we feel about ourselves in any way. If we’re not feeling confident or powerful, we should ask ourselves why this is and what we can do to change that, but wearing a power suit and some killer high heels alone certainly can’t fake it and won’t achieve a true feeling of power and control.
As a musician and a female, it can be a bit of a double-edged sword to hold a strong image and be judged for it but ignored if you don’t have some visual presence - especially in a male-dominated field. Why do you think this persists?
I completely agree with that, but I find that this holds true for male artists as well. I personally like to see people who have created a very distinct and unique image for themselves. Like music and arts, it’s a way to express yourself and show people how you feel and think about yourself and the world around you. But overall I think the image is not the problem. The problem is when you are good at what you do. That’s when the bullying starts. The way you look suddenly becomes the focal point and that’s the aspect that is then under attack. Because that’s a very easy thing to do. I mean ‘looking good’ or having a striking image, whatever always draws attention, won’t save you, unless you can back it up with your skills and achievements. In the whole discussion about ‘female electronic music’, for example, focusing on the looks is definitely in the way of finding realistic solutions. That’s my opinion. Just because you look a certain way, doesn’t mean what comes from your mind has a certain quality.
What is your take on the current predominant female response to that?
There is something going on that I don’t like at all and it’s this weird collectivism amongst girls and women. You easily become a target when you don’t fit into a category. I would love to point the debate in that direction, if I could, instead of talking about some stupid guys who don’t even understand what you’re doing musically. Any ignorant idiot will criticise any artist, male or female, if they are confronted with something radical or complex. I see more women saying they just give people what they want, make money, then move on. I think by doing that, you’re feeding the beast and the problem actually becomes bigger. And that’s something that too many of us underestimate, it changes you as well. You’re gradually morphing into that other person. That’s why key women in electronic music were never popular, because they would have had to give up their identity in order to appeal to the masses. At the moment I think jealousy amongst women is the worst enemy. Too many use the power structure as an excuse.
When I look at Cold Metal Perfection now, 13 years after it was released, one thing becomes very clear to me: Once you created something and you didn’t compromise, didn’t think about what the idiots were going to say about it, nobody can change that back.
What are some other stereotypes about women in electronic music you think still predominate?
There’s still this popular misconception floating around that all women are somewhat technophobic: women don’t like to engage themselves in anything dealing with technical issues and activities, because they are “naturally missing the comprehension for it”. It’s mostly displayed in the most subtle way in society, but it’s definitely existing. For example, people are still baffled when they hear that you are totally into programming, coding or gaming and love doing it 24/7 as a women. Then you can’t possibly be “a real woman”. They’re assuming, that you must be socially inept, particularly ugly and unsuccessful with men. And if you’re on top of it all also good looking and successful at it, then something must be just downright wrong with you. You know, stuff like that. It’s ridiculous.
Shouldn’t the DIY and exploratory spirit of the digital age help shatter these stereotypes?
Unfortunately, this hasn’t changed with the internet age, in fact it has reinforced all those stereotypes. I find it very hard to even understand why people think like that, but I see it all the time. For too many people the world seems too easily explained. Interesting personalities just don’t fit in. But I find that exactly these types of artists came up with the biggest and most interesting innovations in the history of music. It is insane that technology and any promotion tools are not helping these artists. Instead the industry is conversely using exactly those means to crush these artists. First, in the online world it really didn’t matter how you looked, but then with social media it became all about how you look. It’s like at high school : “Who is the most popular?”. That was the logical consequence. There are too many people in the industry now who are only interested in some popularity stats. We shouldn’t let this corrupt our thinking and our intuition as artists, and it shouldn’t prevent us from exploring the unknown in our music.
Do you think there are factors within the actual production of electronic music that exclude or discourage females from getting involved?
I can’t really speak for others here, but I think, things have become very conservative over the past decade. I’m very surprised to see how easy it was for many to fall back into these old thinking patterns. In the Nineties there was a lot of diversity. I mean from Courtney Love, Garbage, to even Madonna, then there was Riot Grrl, L7 and all of these artists around. When you compare that to what’s happening since a decade, you realize how much damage the George Bush era has actually done. It has led to a point where all of a sudden it was considered ‘cool’ to say that you’re ‘not feminist’. The way I think is, if you want to be in control of your own life, you have to be feminist, there is not even a question about it!
Aside from Alec who would you consider your male equivalent within electronic music?
I’ve never thought about this, to be honest. I guess, it depends on what qualifies to be an equivalent: is it the same taste in music, similar musical style, similar work ethics, biography ? I don’t know. Actually, I wouldn’t even consider Alec as my male equivalent in this regard. We have completely opposing personalities, qualities and very different ways of doing things. We just happen to work on projects together and when we do, we complement each other well, because of these differences and because we value each others characters and opinions.
What do you feel when you listen to your own music?
I feel very connected and in line with the mood of the music and I still get why I did things the way I did at that time. But it also makes me want to move forward. Having been involved in the production of Alec Empire’s albums “Intelligence and Sacrifice” and “Futurist” the past decade and then Atari Teenage Riot, I take those into account as well. I can see from the fact that sometimes people are asking me “What have you been up to since your last solo album came out?”, that they often underestimate my role in those records/projects.
What attracts you to a sound?
The physical sensation and a feeling that it causes. My father used to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force and on some days when I was little kid, he used to take me to the air base where I could watch jets taking off, fly and land. Even though they gave me sound protection headphones, to me the sounds of those jets were still incredibly loud and insanely intense. I could feel the massive rumble and shaking of the ground migrating through my whole body. It made me super excited and hyper. I just loved that noise and the physical sensation and I think, it’s that experience that has set my agenda, taste and view about sounds and music in general to a certain extent.
Cold Metal Perfection, remastered, in full:
What does your own music achieve that strongly differs from ATR? How are the means and ends of the project different?
ATR’s existence and music follows a strict concept and idea. And that has been like this from the start, since Alec Empire came up with it. Every basic aspect in the creation of ATR’s music is pretty much pre-determined and laid out before we even start to record: from the topics, the musical structures of the songs to the tiniest technical details, like for example, how the bass drum should be tuned, the EQing of every single sound to the final mix for every new album to achieve the ideal that we call: “Riot Sounds Produce Riots” .It all actually follows a logical pattern. That’s what it is at least to us. ATR’s sound has been copied a lot, but never equaled, in my opinion.
It’s a collaborative work from start to finish. ATR is the extroverted side of us. Our solo stuff is the introverted side. My own music is like keeping my own personal logs in musical form. When I’m in the studio, it’s like I open the tap and see what comes out, then I decide if I like to pursue the idea. Solo I can just do what I please: there’s no discussions and it’s a different work flow at my own pace, that I really enjoy. And I use different gear as well than in ATR’s music production. I usually don’t think out a aesthetic concept or a certain topic for an album before I work on the music - apart from the White Heat EP, where I specifically wanted to do a pure noise record and one of the hardest existing at that time.
What do you recommend to young musicians wanting to make a sound of their own - that they know the social function of their music first or that they become technically proficient?
Becoming technically proficient and skilled is easy. Biting your teeth out over problems and obstacles and thus learning and remaining persistent, staying curious and motivated, that’s just a natural and logical progression. What could be useful is to know music first, the history of music and understand what you could add to it. It’s a never-ending process, but there is nothing more idiotic than some DJ who claims he came up with something ‘amazing and original’ that was actually done better in the Eighties, for example. And the music industry does the rest to bury the truth in order to sell a new act. One thing is becoming more and more important: Ignore the internet buzz! These are very short-lived phenomenons and they die faster than you can catch up with them. This stuff fucks with many people’s minds. They are trying to adapt and find their audience. But it’s a mess right now. Old institutions, the music press, radio, television, are in trouble. As a consequence, you can’t act and react to it the way bands did in the last century. Now, more than ever before, is it important to know the purpose of your music and why you are making it. And to get clear about how you can behave with integrity along the way.