Automat is a German supergroup consisting of Georg Zeitblom (Sovetskoe Foto), Achim Färber (Project Pitchfork) and Jochen Arbeit (Einstürzende Neubauten). Based in Berlin, the band primarily produce tense instrumental music of a dub-focused electronic persuasion. Their latest release for Bureau B, Ostwest, completes a trilogy of albums that elected the topology of Berlin as its prime subject matter.
Whilst the first two albums, Automat (2014) and Plusminus (2015) explored the sonic metaphors of airports and space travel respectively, Ostwest was created against the backdrop of Europe’s escalating migrant crisis. Recording the album in 2015, at Candy Bomber Studio, the band found themselves neighbouring temporary shelters for African and Middle Eastern refugees. This unprecedented encounter paved the way for a new thematic construct based around travel and migration.
Ilia Rogatchevski caught up with Automat’s guitarist, Jochen Arbeit, after their recent show at Chelsea’s Under The Bridge venue. During Arbeit’s brisk beer and cigarette break, they discussed dub, the politics of the voice and neoliberalism.
Ilia Rogatchevski: I want to ask about your new album, Ostwest. It’s described as a political album about the failures of neoliberalism. I’m curious about how politics and, specifically, the failures of neoliberalism inform your music?
Jochen Arbeit: We are an instrumental band. We have no singer, so we cannot communicate through lyrics. That’s why we always write a press release where we put our thoughts down and try to explain what we are thinking, what we think is going on.
The last three albums were especially about Berlin: the situation there, how it changed before the Wall, after the Wall. This album we recorded in Candy Bomber Studio, which is in the old Tempelhof Airport. All the refugees were there, while we were recording. Thousands of people down in the old hangers. It was super cold, no showers. Every day, when we were going to work, we were surrounded by these refugees. I don’t know if it has influenced the music, but we had to cope with this. This was our daily life. It was our working situation, so we tried to explain it.
Did you come into direct contact with any of the refugees?
Not really, but our producer, Ingo Krauss, did. He told us some stories. It was very relaxed and there was no big things happening, so it was pretty cool, actually. All these thousands of people. It was OK.
The funny story is that they started building showers for these people. The cost was, I don’t know, one hundred thousand Euros or something. They were done, the showers, when the people were already gone! The long way of bureaucracy: it took half a year [to build the showers] and the people have disappeared already! So now they have showers, but nobody is there anymore.
Maybe next time…
Yeah, I hope not!
I wanted to ask about the instrumental aspect of your music, the dub element. There was a writer called Mark Fisher. He talked about the erasure of the voice as being this sort of eerie element. I wonder if that is something you specifically think about, because you don’t have a singer?
We sometimes use people in the studio or we work with vocal samples. We collect stuff, but we don’t have a singer, that’s true. Maybe for the next album we will have more singers again.
For the first album, of course, we had singers (Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Lydia Lunch, Blixa Bargeld), but we wanted to go away from this, for the image of the band. Otherwise people get used to it and they ask: “Where is the singer? Why are they not here?” This is not helpful.
We try to avoid this, so the last two albums were instrumental. We had a Japanese girl in the studio, Yuko Matsuyama. She is on two songs [from Ostwest], but we nearly destroyed the voice, more or less. It’s not so obvious a voice and yes, no lyrics.
So it is more about a collective personality…
And sound also. Vocals as sound and not as a message.
You mentioned, just a minute ago, that there is a story line that connects the three albums. The first one was kind of about airports and Berlin and the second one…
The second one was more about inside the airport where the studio is. We talked about the machines, the old analogue machines we were using, because it’s like a museum where we work. [Krauss] has all these old machines. We wanted to put this a bit more upfront, how we work.
You all have about 30 years’ experience of composing and improvising. Does that experience ever cause problems? If it does, how do you overcome those problems? Is it quite easy to work together?
It is super easy because we have the same background, musically, socially. We grew up in the same time and we still talk about old TV stuff we saw as kids, old music we heard when we were young. We have common ground and that makes it very easy. I was doing a lot of improv stuff before I met the boys and this was normally without drums, without a groove. So after two, three years I was coming out of this phase and I thought a groove would be nice for a change. It was a natural development.
What part of your development are you at now? What is going to happen next, musically?
Musically, the three of us, we have a plan. We are sure where we want to go. We want to go to a different continent.