Stephan Groth of Apoptygma Berzerk on Spotify vs. vinyl, his inspirations and the new alter ego ♠TP
(By our Norwegian correspondent Jan Ronald Stange. Photos by Tarjei Krogh and Jan Ronald Stange)
An extensive interview with Stephan Groth of Apoptygma Berzerk, about the “Exit Popularity Contest” album release, that’s what we were after and that is what we got! We were accompanied by Per Aksel Lundgreen (ex-member of Apop, currently aiding with the marketing), at Per Aksel’s workplace, the amazingly stuffed Retro Vinyl og CD (recordstore) in Sarpsborg, Norway (September 29th 2016). Note that the album will only be available in physical formats, so get your copy of the very limited cassette , CD or vinyl right here!
SL: What is the background for issuing three 12’’ and finally an album instead of a more usual Apoptygma Berzerk studio album?
Stephan: At the time I started on “Stop feeding the beast” about three years ago, I was in a bubble listening to John Carpenter and similar music, and I wanted to make the same kind of music. I was also somewhat in limbo regarding a new Apop album. I had worked on it for many years already, but both a lack of motivation and a viable alternative from the record industry has made it hard to complete.
SL: You have been critical of Spotify and the use of new media by the music industry?
Yes and no. As an alternative to radio and mixtapes, or as a promotion tool, Spotify is ok. But when is replaces a physical release, that’s when I say “no, no, that does not work!” I find it horrific and sad that today’s kids can’t experience the joy and curiosity of physical releases; to enter a record shop, hold the release in their hands, see the artist photos, read the cover to see who has worked with the music. At the end of the 80s, there were six record shops in Fredrikstad; now there’s just one left in the next city, and that’s where we are now! That’s where we met and discussed music. The physical experience, finding and discovering new music is no longer possible.
And that was much of the idea behind “Stop feeding the beast”. The release should be just like when synth music was released on vinyl, and only available on a physical format, and in limited editions. I wanted to do something exclusive, and it worked well. It culminated with the twelve-inches “Videodrome” and “Xenogenesis”. Then everybody thought it was awesome, and wanted releases on CD, Spotify, etc. But I draw the line at Spotify. I dig vinyl the most, but am also fan of CDs, which is a fantastic format with great sound. My deliberate choice to listen to and buy vinyl again was also part of what started these EPs – to bring back that feeling of how it used to be, the ritual of dusting off the record, turn it half way through, move the needle, and all the other physical things you must do to listen to music.
I have been carried away, raiding second-hand markets, where I always make sure to get at least ONE record I haven’t heard of before. It is okay to discover new stuff on YouTube, but nothing beats the feeling of coming home and playing something you have found on a fleamarket in Sweden. My record collection has tripled in size the past years!
The thought behind limited edition vinyl records was for it to be a small piece of art, something to touch and feel, something that still has value. I too don’t believe that giving away an MP3 file in exchange for an email address is a good promo strategy. The relationship between the value of the music and the “payment” of an email address makes no sense. With a limited edition vinyl record, with extras, such as magnets, flexidiscs and more included, you are guaranteed that the value will not decrease, making it an investment for the buyer. You purchase something of value, to hang on the wall, and which can be resold without a loss. And something more “real” seems more fair to the hardcore fans than an MP3 file, which is worthless.
One thing followed the other during this process, and not until I was almost done with «Xenogenesis» did I realize that everything fit together. I had to sit down with Halvor Bodin (cover designer) to see how we could make it all work in a trilogy format.
With hindsight, I think we’ll find that releasing an album incrementally like this was smart. There was a certain crowdfunding-feel about it, without being crowdfunded. In a way, you are working with the inner core of fans, who get the music early, while the rest read about it and look forward to the CD release. And, nothing has been leaked!
SL: How has this been of inspriration to others?
I’ve had several inquiries from other bands about the equipment and instruments that I use, and how the process has been. It seems I have ignited inspiration in bands in several countries. I too have been inspired lately. I mentioned John Carpenter, and I was lucky to see him live a couple of months ago. And we had Kraftwerk visiting Den Norske Opera in August – 8 concerts in 4 days, more than they had previously played in Norway in the past 25 years.
There are also some old TV series that reuse old sounds, which inspire even further, such as “Stranger Things”. And “The Knick” has an 80s modular, futuristic soundscape. The recent popularity of these series could mean people are interested in the origins of this type of music, rather than that of today. And perhaps take a few steps back to the roots, and find something that has been lost along the way.
The electronic music of today has strayed too far for my taste. Much of it has no longer anything to do with my roots, and many people probably think I am too critical of this. When I have been hard pressed, and asked to clarify what electronic music is to me, I have answered that as long as it has a clear, red line back to Kraftwerk, it is music I can relate to. The further away from the Kraftwerk sound, vibes and vision, the less I understand of it. And Kraftwerk can be a lot – I also love their early prog-releases.
SL: Do fans think you have wandered too much between music genres? Has someone reacted to new directions, missing what used to be?
I have tried on quite a lot, and looking back it’s probably only parts of the future pop period that I am not completely satisfied about. There were too many elements of dance/trance mixed in, and it tainted the genre too much for my taste. The idea might have been good at the time, but now I see that some things were not all good. Some like evolution, others like being retrospective, and others again would rather have a “Welcome to Earth 2”.
“Welcome to Earth” was my “Violator” and the most important record I have released commercially, but I doubt it will ever happen again. You can’t please everyone, there will always be some complaining, but that is only natural and okay. I can feel the same way about bands I like. Even Kraftwerk have had their weak moments, but nothing I would denigrate. In summary it is the genre fans who are more likely to whine and jump ship, rather than the Apop fans. Real fans don’t complain.
SL: An instrumental album is quite different than a «regular» album. Any advantages, disadvantages? And was it to give yourself new challenges?
In a way, it is easier to make – doing only instrumental, rather that needing lyrics, which easily gets trite and mostly used as a filler. It is hardest to make music that has an influence and tells a story without words – you need to tell your story, but also make sure it doesn’t get boring. To get it to add up takes longer time, more build-up, until you get in a mood. Nothing is better when you get in a flow and can let yourself float away.
We had a very long and tiresome «Harmonizer»-tour in our future pop period, going back and forth across continents. When we returned, I realized that ‘I master this expression, and I can’t top it’. Mixed with a breakup and feeling burned out, I lost all interest and motivation, and wanted to do anything but music. I had just had it. What got me going again back then was going back to my roots. I dusted off some old synthesizers, and made the “Fairlight Children” album. Even though it is not an Apop album, it is probably the most important in my career because it gave me the desire to make music again.
That is also the same with the new album; when things become routine I have to make changes and have total freedom to do something new. If that means wearing an Ace Frehley mask and make long, droning synth songs, then that’s the reboot I need to do something exciting again and start a new phase.
SL: Leafing through the album cover reveals fragments of a background story – what is the message or the theme of the album?
♠TP, the dude that made this album, is mentioned in a report inside the cover, written by the psychologist from “Riget” by Lars von Trier. ♠TP has escaped from reality and reinvented himself somewhere else, in another reality, on the other side of the river. It is autobiographical in part, but made more cheerful and fun than my private story at times. ♠TP has moved to a new place, environmentally damaged after too much touring, and can’t wash off the makeup, so he has become his own persona for real. He has moved to a place where people accept him for who he is, and tries to get to know people through his music. By manipulating his own reality he also manages to alter the real reality, and some intelligence agencies become interested and see the potential to use this for military purposes. Then they make the report, that is also an “explanation” of what the songs are about. But not too apparent and detailed – I like that there is plenty room for interpretation and a bit mysterious, not so done served.
I often find that interpretations are both individual and important. I can get feedback that a song has had a special meaning to someone, or has helped someone in a difficult situation, where the listener’s interpretation wasn’t what I meant with that song. Now, I can’t say that is wrong and that I meant something else, but I believe this is part of the art in music; that when passing through the “filter” of the listener, the music can gain new meaning and fit in different situations for different people. Simply beautiful, really. If you google the titles and the content, you get an adventure and a study for almost every song. Many conspiracy theories and interesting topics to discover if you want to and have the time. I started to hint about this on the “Rocket Science” album, and now ♠TP has taken it to a whole new level. And to quote Aphex Twin: “…whether the theories fit or not, they are nonetheless much better entertainment than what comes out of Hollywood”.
You can also enjoy the album without diving into all these details – that’s up to the listener!
… but something found its way to the net anyway – enjoy! 😉