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German Music

Press: Battering Ramm


By Chris Gill

Taken from Guitar World
June 1998


Singer Till Lindemann is on fire. Not in the figurative sense, but literally. Large flames leap from Lindemann's arms and lick at his face, threatening to turn him into a crispy critter. It's an impressive, dangerous effect that most bands would save for the climax of the show (like the burning roadie Metallica featured in their most recent arena tour), but in Rammstein's case the show has only just begun.

Soon the stage is engulfed in fireball explosions, making it look like the deepest pits of hell. With rocket launchers attached to his arms, Lindemann sprays showers of sparks high into the air. Later, during a soul-stirring rendition of "Ich Will Ficken" ("I Will Fuck You") [Note from the webmaster: that translation is incorrect, it really means I want to fuck. The song is actually Das alte Leid, and that is a line from it], he brandishes a grotesquely oversized dildo that shoots 30-foot flames above the heads of an audience that is as terrified as it is enthusiastic. All the while Rammstein maintains a relentless, aggressive assault of metal guitars, techno keyboards, growling vocals (sung entirely in Rammstein's native German) and machine-like rhythms.

The spectacle and stage antics continue during "Bestrafe Mich" ("Punish Me"), as Lindemann whips himself in the face with a cat-of-nine-tails; "Du Hast" ("You Hate"), with jackhammer rhythms he punctuates by firing a gun; and "Bück Dich" ("Bend Down"), where Lindemann molests keyboardist Flake (pronounced "flah-kuh") as the latter lies prostrate on the floor with a ball gag in his mouth, with a foot-long dildo that squirts gooey white fluid all over the two of them. Flake retaliates by breaking a glowing, fluorescent light tube across Lindemann's bare chest, which starts to bleed as the band goes into its last song. The triumphant Flake crowd surfs, sitting in an inflatable raft and holding a torch aloft as the audience pass him above their heads.

Forget about the second wave of the British invasion. The Germans are coming.

With a stage show that makes Kiss and Marilyn Manson concerts look like Disney musicals, Rammstein have become one of mainland Europe's most successful homegrown acts in recent years. Rammstein's two albums, Herzeleid and Sehnsucht, the latter of which was recently released by Slash Records in the U.S., have gone either Platinum or Gold in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and topped the charts in Finland, Sweden and Hungary. Not bad for a band whose members were toiling in boring factory and labor-intensive jobs in the cities of East Berlin and Schwerin in formerly Communist East Germany only nine years ago.

The name Rammstein, literally "hit stone," also means "ramming stone" or "battering ram"-a highly accurate description for the sound of their music and the force of their stage show. Originally conceived as a side project to the six members' regular musical outlets, the band was formed in early 1994.

"We came from a variety of backgrounds," notes guitarist Paul Landers, "metal, punk, folk, gothic and blues. We wanted to try out something new."

Coming together barely four years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the musicians enjoyed the new opportunities that came along with the freedom of a capitalist society. In fact, Landers doubts that Rammstein would even exist if the wall hadn't come down: "Rammstein is a Western band. We are a product of the reunification of Germany. In the old East Germany, there was only one major record company covering the entire country. Things were divided into professional and underground scenes. The only way you could become a professional musician was to join a high school and get a degree in music. The government offices had the last word in deciding what was possible and what was not. But it was not that bad. You always felt on the edge if you did something different, but it did not put you in a dangerous situation."

"But nobody who grew up in the Western part of Germany could make this kind of music," counters guitarist Richard Kruspe, the founding member of the band.. "Living for 25 years in a special kind of society influences you. East Germans are much more emotional than West Germans, who are good technically as musicians but all sound similar to each other or the American and English bands they are influenced by."

Shortly after the members of Rammstein first gathered to work out ideas, the band began to take on a life of its own. The musicians became so engulfed by this side project that they soon quit their other bands. But in the process they also jeopardized their personal lives.

"Rammstein became this dominating creature," says Landers. "We all had stable family situations in the beginning. Five of us had girlfriends or wives, and even children. But when we formed Rammstein those relationships crashed. We didn't know that we were becoming addicted to what we created. Suddenly, we were free and had time to concentrate on the band, like what you normally do when you're 17. Emotionally, we were frustrated, but that created a vibe for our music. Since then, Rammstein has become our family."

The members channeled their frustration into inspiration for Rammstein's first album, the aptly titled Herzeleid (Heartache), which they recorded in Sweden in March, 1995, less than a year after the band formed, and released that fall. Kruspe and Landers' tight, distorted Metallicaesque guitars and bassist Ollie Riedel and drummer Christoph Schneider's hard-hitting rhythms provided the ideal foundation for Lindemann's snarling, half-spoken baritone vocals and disturbing lyrics about subjects like violence, child abuse and decayed relationships, while Flake's pulsating techno synths and keyboard lines provided melodic contrast.

The German press promptly accused Rammstein of supporting neo-Nazi "master race" ideals. The goose-stepping rhythms, Lindemann's sharply enunciated vocals sung entirely in German and song titles like "Weisses Fleisch" ("White Flesh") didn't help matters.

"Those accusations were absurd," says Landers, who notes that Rammstein is managed by a black man, Emu Fialik. "We have problems because our music is hard and heavy and because we are not British or hippies. If we were Spanish we wouldn't have to deal with this hassle. None of us are typically German. We're not even really big fans of this country, and we're certainly not waving the flag for Germany or any political cause."

Nor are the members of Rammstein Socialists, as a recent Details article suggested. Kruspe and Landers laugh at these assumptions, particularly since the author reasoned that the band's rechanneling of profits back into the stage show was proof of their Socialist leanings. Using that logic, they argue, then Kiss and Mötley Crüe are socialists as well, and everyone knows that you aren't going to hear Marxist rhetoric coming from the mouths of Gene Simmons or Tommy Lee any time soon.

However, the band is adamant about singing their songs in their native German tongue. "The lyrics are written with a certain sound in mind, which makes it difficult for us to translate them into English," says Kruspe. "People thought that we wouldn't get signed in the U.S. because we sing in German. However, the first experience I had with an American audience showed me that it was possible. That moment reminded me of when I was a teenager and I was listening to English music. I couldn't understand a single word, but I would sing along to things like AC/DC's 'TNT.' I didn't care about the words as much as the band's energy."

The Nazi accusations and language-barrier problems were insignificant compared to another challenge which faced the band in its early days-bored audiences. The small crowds who turned out to see their early shows weren't paying much attention, and this enraged the band-and ignited them. Their first pyrotechnic stunt was to soak the floor of the hall-where the audience would be standing-with gasoline before the show. When the band took the stage, they set fire to the floor, which really got people to dance to the music.

But in the beginning Lindemann was bored as well, and he complained that he felt disconnected from the band and the audience. Seeing how setting audiences on fire eased their boredom, the band decided to take the same route with Lindemann and started setting him on fire, as well. "Till had no idea what to do on stage or how to connect with an audience," Kruspe explains. "He can't express himself with just his voice. He always needs to do something special. He is addicted to anything that is on the edge-women, physical experiences, food, everything. In fact, setting himself on fire is nothing compared to the things he does every day.

"Acting on stage is a big part of what we do," Kruspe continues. "When I'm out there, it's like I'm in disguise or a whole different person. It is very important for me to enter a different state of mind before I go on stage. But we're also having fun up there. We're not taking ourselves too seriously, which I think anyone can see."

As you might expect, Rammstein has experienced more than a few mishaps in their incessant quest for fire. The numerous scars on Lindemann's body offer mute testimony of this dangerous avocation. "The show definitely keeps everybody awake, especially ourselves," says Kruspe. He recounts several instances where he nearly fried his face off when a flame thrower misfired. Kruspe mentions that the band handled all of its own pyro effects until the day that a burning backdrop fell on the stage and nearly toasted everyone. "We decided that we couldn't control everything, so we hired a company of professionals to take care of our special effects."

At the end of 1996, the band flew to the island of Malta to record Sehnsucht (Longing) at Temple Studios. Having been together for nearly two years, during which time they toured relentlessly, Rammstein was now a well-oiled industrial music machine. Dominated by Kruspe and Landers' sledgehammer rhythm guitars, which mesh together like precisely synchronized gears, the riff-laden album rivals Pantera and classic Metallica's most brutal work.

"We guitarists are the most stubborn players in the band," says Landers. "We insist on being louder than everybody else." Landers mentions that both he and Kruspe are primarily rhythm players, and when it comes time for a solo or melody line, the two will usually play the part together at the same time. "In the beginning we tried to sample all the guitars to make it sound more like a machine," he says. "Our producer asked us to try playing the normal way, and it turned out much better. Richard is more of the tube guy, while I am more of the transistor guy. Tube is slow and fat. Transistor is fast and aggressive. Together they sound very good. Together they make the Rammstein sound."

Both guitarists summon their ominous, crunchy tones live and in the studio by plugging Mesa Boogie and SansAmp preamps direct into the mixing board. Kruspe pummels a custom-made ESP guitar with active humbuckers, while Landers thrashes an Ernie Ball/Music Man Eddie Van Halen model.

But heavy riffs are only part of Rammstein's aural assault. "I've always sought to achieve a balance between strong melodies and heavy guitars," says Kruspe, who pens most of the band's songs. "I think it's interesting that people today are willing to take bits and pieces from all kinds of music and mix them together, but for me the main thing is songwriting. Most people forget to develop that ability."

The emphasis on melody helped Rammstein land its biggest hit to date, the single "Engel" ("Angel"), which has sold nearly 500,000 copies in Germany alone since its release in April, 1997.

The overwhelming success of "Engel" led to Sehnsucht shipping Platinum in Germany when it was released in August, 1997. Three other Rammstein records also topped the German charts during that period-Herzeleid and the singles "Engel" and "Du Hast"-an uncommon occurrence for any band, especially an East German act. It didn't hurt that Rammstein hadn't toned down its controversial, highly personal lyrics on Sehnsucht, this time adding songs about sadistic sex ("Bück Dich" or "Bend Down") and cunnilingus ("Küss Mich (Fellfrosch)" or "Kiss Me (Furry Frog)") to its repertoire.

Having conquered most of Europe, Rammstein set their sights on a more challenging territory-America. Musicians like the Foo Fighters' David Grohl and the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, who witnessed Rammstein's European festival performances, became outspoken fans and began telling any journalist who would listen about the band. A few weeks after releasing Sehnsucht in Europe, Rammstein made their American live performance debut, playing two shows in New York City during the 1997 CMJ (College Media Journal) convention. The response was encouraging, and shortly thereafter the band signed a deal with Slash Records. That December, Rammstein returned to the United States to open eight shows for KMFDM, earning enthusiastic reviews from the American press.

Slash released Sehnsucht stateside last February and Rammstein's manager has been negotiating plans for a full-scale U.S. tour opening for a major headliner. However, few bands have the balls to let a band such as Rammstein take the stage before them, knowing that it's hard to compete with superior fire power.

"We want to become successful in the United States," says Kruspe. "We have an advantage with our stage show because American audiences are much more interested in being entertained than Germans are. We had to pull German audiences into the show, but Americans are much more enthusiastic when they discover something visually exciting.

"I am very interested in what will happen if Rammstein turns out to be successfu. But my biggest desire is that the band will stay together much longer. Beyond success in America, and whatever else may happen, I feel that it is important that Rammstein stays together as a team. All six band members are all equal, and I want to keep things that way. Success in America and Europe is wonderful, but keeping a band together and coming up with exciting, new creative ideas is the greatest success of all."

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