BlackBook Interview: Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy on New Project ‘BLACK LINE’

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Unlike some of their more insular contemporaries on the electro-industrial scene, Nitzer Ebb were difficult to pigeonhole – even effortlessly incorporating hip-hop elements into their thundering aesthetic. And so it was that their influence has been all the wider and further for it; indeed, current bleeding-edge acts like Light Asylum, Cold Cave, Trust, and even The Knife all owe a significant debt.

These days, Nitzer Ebb comes and goes at seemingly random will – and British-born frontman Douglas McCarthy is actually living in Los Angeles, where he’s the apparent ringleader of a fascinating cadre of musical accomplices. He did detour to the Midwest earlier this year, to contribute to the new ADULT. album Detroit House Guests. But he returned to LA for the task of organizing (along with sonic conspirator Cyrusrex) collaborators for a new project called BLACK LINE – whose unsubtly-titled debut album, Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities, was just released last month.

A lineup that includes Depeche Mode’s Christian Eigner, producer Zack Meyers and Hollywood sound designer Anthony Baldino, amongst scores of others, will take the stage at LA’s Teragram Ballroom on July 7, for their debut live performance. In the lead up, we caught up with McCarthy to discuss his detractors, the Occupy movement, and running into people in nightclubs in Berlin.

 

 

How did you come together with Cyrusrex for the BLACK LINE project?

About eight years ago a mutual friend introduced us when I was doing a show in Austin with Terence Fixmer. We were actually neighbors in Downtown LA, but it took a little while to actually get together. I had already begun work on my solo album, Kill Your Friends, and we started writing new material together as DJM/REX, which we regularly slotted into our sets. We finished a couple of EPs and did some touring with Skinny Puppy, Cold Cave and Depeche Mode. This eventually led to BLACK LINE.

The electro-industrial scene has always had the quality of a “community,” with everyone collaborating and trading musicians. Does this help sustain and fuel the creative energy?

From the earliest days of Nitzer Ebb we knew and supported an array of artists including Laibach and Hard Corps, and it was reciprocal. As time went on it became like a history of electronic music: Depeche, Miss Kittin, Ritchie Hawtin, Daniel Miller, Wolfgang Flur, Robert Görl, Mark Moore, Andrew Weatherall, Chris and Cosey…the list goes on. Some are dear friends, others mere acquaintances – but throughout, there is an incredible depth of appreciation and respect.

You were involved with a similar type of situation with your guest appearance on the new ADULT. album earlier this year. Were you inspired by that to do something similar?

Detroit House Guests was a very special project done in extraordinary circumstances. My feeling is that it will always be a one off event as curated by Adam and Nicola; whereas although BLACK LINE has a curatorial element, it has been much less scripted. Christian Eigner, Depeche Mode’s drummer, was spending some time in Los Angeles, and he suggested we do a session together. So we took some very rudimentary musical ideas and he and I just sort of jammed. ‘Sedition’ was the first track we did. That got us thinking about the process of allowing external elements to guide or redirect what Cyrus and I were doing. Friends were dropping by the studio fairly often and they started to interact with what we were doing, or were even creating ideas that we were then interacting with. It made it a lot of fun, if at times a little chaotic.

 

Image by Eric “Rodent” Cheslak

Tell us about some of the collaborators and their roles in the making of the album.

The artists that make electronic music in LA are a pretty tight community. It used to be that as an artist you’d run into others on the road, at events and festivals overseas – Juan (Silent Servant) at a party in Spain or Moe (Drum Cell) at Berghain in Berlin – but it feels like there is something more Los Angeles based, beyond that we all just live here.
The main “players” in the completion of the album were myself, Cyrus and Zack Meyers, but everybody else played a massively important role in their own right. Zack heard some of the rough ideas we were working with and wanted to, in many ways, step into a co-producer role. He has a strong background in top 40 and certainly ironed out some of the creases. Anthony’s work is extremely textual and we invited him to try some things where we felt that was applicable. Jon Bates (Big Black Delta) was somewhat between projects and we wanted to use his incredible vocal ability and musicianship on a couple of songs. (Mixer) Ken Hiwatt Marshall worked on the DJM/REX EPs and also on the soundtrack with us and my wife, Hazel Hill McCarthy III, for her documentary on Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, called Bight Of The Twin.

“Sedition” almost has a hymn-like quality. What is the message of the song?

It was written at the height of the Occupy movement in LA, which was seemingly coinciding with the rise of ISIS and some brutal policing across the US. All of these “news events” were (and still are) willfully polarizing. I’m not sure there is a message, it’s more defiant resignation. Which is obviously a contradiction in terms, but is literally how I feel. I’m a singer, an artist – I’m not a politician. I don’t know solutions, but I know when things are fucked.

“No Crime” seems like it takes influence from the current dance music scene. What have you been listening to lately?

We were getting to the end of the album and Cyrus, Zack and myself discussed the lack of a “straight ahead” dance track, so we decided to address that. Myself and Cyrus had a go, with the help of Brad and Anthony, at what turned out to be “No Crime” – and my personal feeling is that it is reminiscent Colourbox.

In “Snap” you sing, “I told you I’d be back again / You didn’t believe me.” Is that autobiographical? Do you have detractors?

Hahaha! There’s a list as long as your arm, mate! I’ve always written lyrics with my tongue firmly in my cheek, especially as over the years the perception may have been that I’m very serious and making very serious music. Having said that, there are a couple of people that I’m more than happy if they never bother to listen to it.

What will the live show be like? Who is participating?

The show at Teragram Ballroom will be most all the players on the album, with a smattering of surprise guests. We will play with myself, Zack and Cyrus as the core, and have others rotate with us as the show develops. Teragram is actually an incredible venue with amazing sound, and we will have a variety of instruments from modular synth to guitars and acoustic drums [Jason Payne from Nitzer Ebb will be playing those]. And there will be an ample amount of sound manipulation and effects by Cyrus and Ken.

Will BLACK LINE be an ongoing project?

Absolutely.

What is the status of Nitzer Ebb right now?

On another hiatus; but not beyond coming back at some point in the future.