No Longer Angry, But Still Shouting
Industrial dance icons Nitzer Ebb get back in the flow
English industrial dance pioneers Nitzer Ebb were finished. At least that’s what most people thought. The feuding founders—high-school friends Douglas McCarthy (vocals/guitar) and Vaughn “Bon” Harris (percussion/guitars/vocals)—put the group on an indefinite hiatus that lasted a decade. But in 2006, the bickering band leaders made nice, and they have since released a fresh record and toured the globe.
“We were very naive, full of ourselves; it was an arrogance of youth, I guess,” McCarthy says. “We went very quickly into being professional musicians, and the frustration and complexities of being in a relationship—especially a creative one—can be very difficult. We parted ways and didn’t speak for seven years.”
Speaking with the Weekly, Harris and McCarthy reflected on the early years of the band and the creation of their famed aggro-industrial sound—dubbed electronic body music (EBM) by Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter. Turns out, the hardship and alienation the two men lived through in the working-class town of Chelmsford, Essex, greatly informed the Teutonically tough sonics of Nitzer Ebb. “I was brought up by very left-wing parents, so there were a lot of politics talked about in our house,” McCarthy says. “We were liberal atheists growing up in the Thatcher-Reagan era . . . upset by the way the ruling class had an utter disregard for the people around them. So it was important to not disregard those roots.”
Harris explains that they wanted to encourage people to embrace self-empowerment and fight back against the prevailing anti-intellectualism—peacefully. “We are absolutely anti-violence, always against aggression on a personal or political level,” he says.
While finding inspiration in the proto-industrial music of Germany’s Einstürzende Neubauten and Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, Nitzer Ebb channeled their rage into the band’s 1987 debut disc, That Total Age (Geffen), which featured the Stateside semi-smash “Join In the Chant.” When fellow Essex residents/Mute Records label mates Depeche Mode invited Nitzer Ebb to join them for a European tour, the band received the exposure they needed to join the ranks of industrial/EBM luminaries Front 242 and Ministry.
Nitzer Ebb’s third album, Showtime (1990), further broadened the band’s reach, thanks to the U.S. club hit “Lightning Man.” They enjoyed help along the way with remixes of their songs by funk icon George Clinton and Detroit techno guru Derrick May. And then Nitzer Ebb received another favor from Depeche Mode.
“We were looking for a bluesy, gospel-y chorus [on their “Once You See” track] and needed a big, ballsy, black gospel singer,” recalls McCarthy, chortling. “So we decided to get Martin Gore to do it!”
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McCarthy is responsible for Nitzer Ebb’s lyrics, which cover, rather cryptically, everything from socialism to partying. “It’s not important that the Ebb’s listeners can tell if there is a conversation happening or if it’s narrative,” McCarthy says. “There is certainly an asset to ambiguity. When you think about the banality of bands like Coldplay, you have the forcefeeding of one person’s point of view in the structure of the music. And that is a turn-off.”
Nitzer Ebb’s 1995 record, Big Hit, found the band morphing—becoming more melodic, using guitars and hiring Jason Payne to do percussion—instead of relying on the synthesizer and drum-machine modes of production their fans had grown to appreciate and expect. Lack of fan love and creative differences eventually eroded Harris and McCarthy’s working relationship. But after years of silence, the old friends sorted out their differences and began to write a “crapload” of songs, leading to the release of 2008’s Industrial Complex. It might not be as pointedly on-target as their first U.S. releases, but songs such as “Promises” and “Hit You Back” echo the block-rocking rhythms of vintage Nitzer Ebb. On balance, the new material marks a smart return to their signature EBM style.
“A lot of [our] work in the mid-’90s was incredibly different and probably should have actually been solo projects,” Harris admits. “We tried to make Nitzer Ebb into a multifaceted outfit. But if we would have had the benefit of the wisdom, we would have said, ‘Let’s put the Ebb to rest for this project.’”
Nitzer Ebb with iCandy and Darvoset at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $20.