"I fight back!" a grinning Alec Empire blurts, explaining why his iPod contains only three albums (by John Coltrane and Stockhausen) but has been filled up with bootleg films. "I demand free access to movies, because I'm a musician! They downloaded my music, so I have a right to get these movies from the internet."Related Videos:
It's always difficult to take Empire entirely seriously. A slim, slight figure fiddling with a bottle of mineral water in the bar above the Dingwalls venue in Camden Town before a gig, the 35-year-old Berliner has made it his business to mangle prejudices and preconceptions.
Empire achieved a cultish level of musical infamy when his aggressively noisy band, Atari Teenage Riot, signed to Phonogram in the 1990s. Always the canny subversive, he took Phonogram's advance and set up a label, Digital Hardcore Recordings, which provided a home for like-minded avant-garde punk/noise/breakbeat crews, and gave a name to the genre they created.
The brutally heavy and intense music - echoes of which could be heard in the likes of Rammstein and the Prodigy - brought Empire to the brink of countercultural pre-eminence. But just as he was about to conquer America, courtesy of a distribution deal with the Beastie Boys, history intervened. Intelligence and Sacrifice, a moody, dark and often brilliant double-disc collection of electronica, noise and dance-rock, was poised to turn him into a star, but its November 2001 release made a record featuring tracks called Path of Destruction, Killing Machine and Buried Alive a rather difficult sell.
The Digital Hardcore brand continued to do solid business, but Empire, ever counter-intuitive, has decided to reboot his label and rethink his sound. His latest solo record, The Golden Foretaste of Heaven, is released on his new Eat Your Heart Out label, and finds the noise rebel indulging a previously unheard interest in Velvets-tinged indie rock, his slogan-heavy and stridently political lyrics giving way to introspective songs about relationships.
"Somebody said to me, 'Ha ha! It would be so funny if you would ever write a ballad,'" Empire smirks. "And I thought that it would actually be more challenging for some listeners if I give them a record like this rather than make one that was even noisier. And it totally worked, because it was delivered so honestly."
The music might have mellowed, but the presentation shows no sign of letting up. Empire calls it "the sound of new Berlin", after a line in an early review. But the "myth about Berlin" is something else he feels needs a bit of retooling. "People think Berlin is something that maybe it's not," he says. "People from other places made records there - David Bowie, U2 - and other people started to say 'Oh, I'm so inspired by Berlin.' But why I'm so interested in Berlin right now is because there's not that tradition. In England there's this whole musical history that's a weight on everybody's shoulders. You open a magazine and always read about 'The new whoever' - there's always these comparisons to the past. I'm interested in thinking in new directions."
Is he getting a bit tired of being the angry guy kicking down the system, then? "Well, in a way, that's part of who I am," he admits. "But I remember I did a show in Italy two years ago, and these kids who came backstage for autographs were like, 'OK Alec! We wanna follow you!' And I said, 'Where to?' The one thing I always wanted was for people to think for themselves - and to question somebody like me."
A different kind of person, of course, might have said, "Come on then, get in line." "Yes," he cackles, "but as a German, I know where this can lead."
· The Golden Foretaste of Heaven is out now
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