Filed under: Interview
“I don’t know if it’s a particularly American phenomena but it seems like a lot of bands or band members over here are really obsessed with their self-image, whereas I think we were much more driven in terms that we felt that we had something to say and that we were saying it in a unique way. We felt we had a right to be heard and in many ways we were musically reactionary, we detested a lot of things that we saw going on and that spurred us on to make our own statement.”
Chatting down the line from his LA headquarters, Bon Harris’ experiences producing albums for the likes of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and goth-rock shock star Marilyn Manson make him amply qualified to talk about success, though it’s his own experiences with proto-electro industrial pioneers Nitzer Ebb that really lend his words weight.
“Nitzer Ebb wasn’t so much about self promotion and self glorification it was just about this desire to be heard,” he continues,”I would say during the whole formative years of the band I would always lie awake at night either because I was so excited about the possibilities or so anxious about what to do next. We were definitely pretty driven in the early days.”
Bon’s reason for chatting about the old days are to promote a retrospective ‘best of’ compilation (Body Of Work) and more interestingly, a reunion tour of Bon and erstwhile bandmate Douglas McCarthy, who as recently as 2004 were both swearing they’d never grace a stage together again. The pair fell out bitterly in a New York hotel room in 1995 which Douglas recalled followed a series of increasingly tense rows.
“During the European tour, myself and everyone in the northern hemisphere had a heated discussion about what a complete and utter bastard I am,” he said in an interview two years ago, adding ‘It would be a cold day in hell I suspect before Bon or myself fancy a reunion”, a sentiment echoed by Bon.
‘Never is a very strong word, it’s highly improbable, at least not with me as part of it,” he replied around the same time, when asked about getting back together with Douglas, though two years on, he’s happy to explain why they’ve changed.
“At the time, that comment was probably an accurate assessment of what was going on because when the Ebb ceased activities last time it was pretty difficult. We spent a lot of time together in the band and they were really intense years, so it doesn’t really surprise me the intensity of the break that we had and how entrenched we ended up. I suppose that when you are considered two halves of a whole for so long, you really get a desire to establish yourself as yourself. You become consumed by the band identity and looking back that statement was my way of saying until we have satisfied ourselves as ourselves, we have no desire to go back to it,” says Bon.
“Since then, Doug’s gone off on his own path; he went back to college, got into doing graphics and is now doing films and stuff like that and also started making music with Terence Fixmer so he is enjoying his own musical experience as well. I’ve been doing stuff with my own band Maven and I’ve carried on working in production with people like Marilyn Manson and Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins). So I think we have had plenty of time to go off and enjoy ourselves on our own. There’s also a ten year music cycle that sees certain styles dip in and out of favour and the last time industrial music, for want of a better word was popular was about ten years ago.
In recent years we also started tentatively started mending a few fences between the two of us, we actually started talking two years ago, in a very cautious and respectful way with each other. And the Mute came along telling us they were definitely releasing our compilation Body OF Work and it all started feeling like heavens were in motion. When the suggestion came up for us to play live again we both thought about and were like ‘Why not?’ ”
Interview & Introduction by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff) : What’s the plan for the upcoming concerts, how are you deciding which tracks to play and also how you’ll play then, will you be updating some of the older ones?
Nitzer Ebb (Bon) : Doug and I have discussed that issue specifically between ourselves and because it’s been so long and because there is a crop of younger fans that have probably never seen us play, we feel like we should go back to basics, because the tour that we are doing is fairly limited in a lot of senses. It’s mainly major festivals or major markets in certain countries, so it’s such a reintroduction and a fairly brief one, I think there’s no harm done to at least initially approach it in just a classic way. We want to offer people exactly what the Nizter Ebb experience was. We’ve talked about it a lot, about really going back to basics like when we very first started, really stripped down, no frills, no smoke and mirrors and just do that, for as long as seems appropriate. When I listen to the records, they don’t sound like they have aged that much in the context of what else is going on musically today. I think one of the strengths of the live show was always its simplicity, so I think we will approach it that way and just do a real faithful rendition of the music. I remember going to see Bauhaus once, after waiting for ages, and feeling mortified when they played one of my favourite songs differently.
Skrufff : Do you have any sense that there is unfinished business or that you still have something to prove as NE?
Bon : I think there is definitely a sense of unfinished business. When we ceased activities before, it was pretty abrupt and I think there was a general sense that we were headed somewhere and maybe didn’t quite bring that to fruition. Numerous people have mentioned to me afterwards, bands like the Prodigy for example, that there were some germs of ideas that were inspired by us, and obviously they went on to achieve fairly huge commercial success. That’s not to say that the pinnacle of fulfillment for us would necessarily be huge commercial success, but I think there was always a feeling that the circle wasn’t complete or that maybe we didn’t completely get our due in general for what we’d done. The split between Doug and I was also very abrupt so this was a good way of showing our respect for each other as much as anything else.
Skrufff : You met Marilyn Manson when he was a journalist who’s also gone on to achieve huge success as a performer, what do you make of the nature of success? Is there a random element?
Bon : With anybody who gets somewhere there is always a huge element of luck. Tracing Nitzer Ebb’s early development, so much of it was just down to what seemed like a random coincidence or being in the right place at the right time. I think there’s a lot of that and I think even more so now. With the state the music business is in it’s more of a crap shoot (game of chance) than ever, and the parameters for success are narrower with the rewards for success also shorter and briefer.. But I think the same basic ingredients of someone that is going to achieve something are the same. To use Manson as an example, he is an extremely sharp individual and very, very persistent; he’s almost self-obsessed in some ways. Sometimes that’s what it takes, that absolute obstinacy that that’s what you want to do and you want to do it your way. Whether you are playing to a hall of three people or three thousand, you want to play or do your thing. That’s another important element, basically you start off being into it for the art if you like and that’s all that matters to you in the beginning, so you don’t really give a shit if people like it or not. You’ve got this desire to do it.
Skrufff : I saw you were DJing at the Bondage Ball in LA recently, is that a fetish party?
Bon : Yeah, there’s a lot of that stuff over here. There are a lot of people involved in that scene who were big Ebb fans so they wanted Maven (his new band) to do that. The DJ thing for me is not that serious. I’m definitely old school – I play one record after the other with not too much clever mixing going on. It’s fun every once in a while. I guess people are interested in the sort of stuff that I like when I was getting into music. It’s still fun to have a few drinks and play a few records.
Skrufff : Did you go through any periods of antagonism towards DJs?
Bon : No. I mean initially I was a bit shocked about just the heights to which someone like the Oakenfolds of this world have risen to. When you see how many people they were playing to and how much money they were getting paid for doing gigs. It seemed pretty weird for me initially, but that’s only if you approach it from the point of view that it’s just a bunch of blokes spinning a bunch of records, but it’s like anything else, once you try it yourself, you realize there is a lot of artistry involved in it and it has become a legitimate musical form. I remember seeing Boy George playing at a festival that we played in Denmark. He was amazing – how he put the records together. You’ve still got to have a musical ear – you’ve got to have a great musical instinct and it’s a live performance. It’s pretty easy to f++k it up, basically. There is a real difference between being a great DJ and a not very good one as I have painfully experienced. I respect and admire DJs. It’s great because it is a particularly late 20th century, early 21st century musical form, they didn’t exist as artists until relatively recently and I love that.
Skrufff : The split of you and Doug in 1995, when you rowed in a New York hotel and parted company permanently, sounds quite Spinal Tap. Do you watch Spinal Tap and think: ‘Oh my God, that’s us?’
Bon : There are Spinal moments every single day and it’s just like any kind of musical venture – studio or whatever, you’ve got to laugh at it because it does get so ridiculous. It’s just the nature of the business and the way things happen, you have a serious moment and then you just realize what you have just said and crack up, because it is just stupid. In some ways it was very Spinal, but I think at that particular point, the whole hotel lobby thing, you are just over it, all the humour had gone and it was just a pretty empty and miserable experience at that point. More than anything you just wanted to be out of there. You get into a band and you get into music because it’s supposed to be like a celebration of life and all the good things about it, and when you get to that point you say: Oh well. I might as well be working in a bank if it feels like this.
Skrufff : Do you look back and think you would have done anything differently?
Bon : No, I’ve thought about that a lot and there’s no-one else I’d rather be and no place I’d rather be. Obviously there have been things that haven’t been so hot along the way but I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and as long as you learn something from it and you can look back now and say I’m in a better place, then it’s all for the good, as far as I’m concerned.
Skrufff : You haven’t found religion along the way at all have you?
Bon : No, I’m still vehemently anti-religious. Organized religion anyway is the bane of mankind’s existence and always has been. I’m very strongly against it. By the same token, just moving in the circle that I do these days I’ve met some people that are highly religious, from one denomination or another, and they are truly great people. So in some ways I watch what I say a little bit more now, because I know there are people involved in it who are good hearted and out of respect for them I tone down my language. But it’s definitely a sore point for me and after couple of lagers I will talk you ear off.
Skrufff : Did you ever consider quitting music and doing a regular job?
Bon : No. In the early days I used to do bit jobs here and there just to make enough money to quit again and carry on doing the band, but really since we got a foothold professionally I’ve never really seriously considered or been put in a position to consider anything else. I’ve been really lucky that the time cycles that I’ve talked about earlier have coincided in my favour a lot of the time. So when the first time when the Ebb were winding down, it had been long enough that other people like Manson wanted me to work on their stuff. So I’ve been fortunate in those ways, like somehow that’s always been there. I think it goes back to what I just spoke about – if you are that committed to music, somehow music is going to provide for you. There’s a quote that Eddie Murphy said – he would always talk to his mum and she said ‘being an actor is fine but why don’t you cultivate a skill that you can fall back on. He said: “because if I have that, I will fall back.’ If music is your safety net and you totally commit to that you will be surprised how it does provide for you in really unexpected ways.
End of the interview
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