I interviewed Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy in 2012. At that time, Doug was prepping his first solo LP, at that time intended to be called Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, but which eventually emerged as Kill Your Friends on Pylon later that year. My interview was originally accompanied by a promotional photo that Doug had supplied, but which the photographer insisted I removed. I’ve no idea now if this photo is the one she asked me to remove – if it is, I will happily remove (again).
One of the two most important electronic acts to emerge from Essex in the Eighties, Nitzer Ebb surprised a lot of fans by reforming in the 2000s, not just for shows as is the current money-spinning way for the record industry machine to milk a band’s back catalogue, but also to record new material. The trio of Bon Harris, Douglas McCarthy and Jason Payne that had recorded 1994’s supposed swansong, Big Hit, almost ten years earlier, came back together to record Industrial Complex (also abbreviated to ICP), an album which managed to complete the circle that Nitzer Ebb had started but never quite finished, returning them to the punishing electronic body music of their earliest Power Of Voice and Mute releases. With Nitzer Ebb now on downtime after a couple of intense years of touring, including a powerful slot at Mute’s Short Circuit festival at The Roundhouse in London last year, Douglas McCarthy has recorded his first solo album, Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me. The album is due for release in April 2012.
‘Last year proved to be a bit frustrating for me with a few projects and tours being stymied by situations, events or people beyond my control,’ explains McCarthy by email from Los Angeles on the origins of Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, ‘so I decided to take matters into my own hands. As it has turned out it was a fortuitous judgement call as, about six months after I started writing, we decided that we would take a year out from Nitzer Ebb. I also wanted to make music that was much more club based than Nitzer Ebb have ever done.’
McCarthy first moved to LA in the early Nineties, then spent some time moving round the country before heading back to England toward the end of the decade. ‘I initially came back to LA in 2005 to work with Bon on the reunion tour and then as the tour progressed and we started to work on new tracks it seemed sensible to relocate from London and work on the album that eventually was released as Industrial Complex.’ Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, however, was begun back in the UK. ‘My father was in the last stages of a very grim terminal illness,’ says McCarthy, ‘and so my wife and I spent a lot of time in the UK. Going out to various nights and parties like my dear friend Richard Clouston’s Cosey Club really reminded me of a lot of things from years gone by and played a big part in the approach to the album. After my dad died, my wife and I came back to LA where the rest of the album was written and recorded in a relatively short space of time. We worked in an amazingly relaxed way, which is a direct response to being out here I think. I actually achieved much more taking that approach.’
While details of McCarthy’s solo record are starting to emerge, ears are still ringing from the breathtaking, urgent fast-paced beats and classic syncopated basslines of 2009’s Industrial Complex, the release of which was promoted by two hard years of touring and almost 150 live shows. ‘It came about after I had recorded an album as Fixmer/McCarthy with Terence Fixmer,’ says McCarthy of Industrial Complex‘s origins. ‘We toured extensively and would always drop in one or two classic Nitzer Ebb tracks. Inevitably it lead those cunning promoters to start asking if Nitzer Ebb could actually do shows again. I emailed Bon and as we were both going to be in the Midwest we agreed to meet up in Chicago for a chat. All went well and we agreed to play a smattering of festivals in Europe. Then, so as not to just be sitting on our arses between events, we added club shows in between. As it turned out we play something like 75 shows in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, North America and South America. I had already moved from London to LA to rehearse and prepare for the tour so when we had breaks from touring, that was our home. We decided to fill the time with trying out some new ideas and, remarkably given our long break from the studio, it was fun, so we carried on in our own sweet time until we thought we had an album.’
‘In a lot of ways it was very similar to making Big Hit,’ continues McCarthy. ‘We would often start with a blank piece of paper, just evolving ideas in the simplest form as the mood took us – a bass part, a keyboard part, a percussion part, a guitar part, whatever was easiest to start an idea rolling. After that we would work on it for usually no more than a day, put it to bed and start the whole process again on something new. We carried on like that until we had over thirty tracks and then thought we better stop and pick the ones that would be a good collection for ICP. That’s the main difference, with Big Hit we really wrung the living hell out of the tracks before moving on to the next.’
The brittle Big Hit was preceded by Ebbhead, the 1991 album produced by Alan Wilder, recently of Recoil fame, with whom the trio of McCarthy, Harris and Payne performed on stage at The Roundhouse last year. In 1991 Wilder was the musical backbone of Depeche Mode, the other important electronic band to emerge from Essex in case you were wondering. ‘We toured with the Mode for the second time on the Violator album tour in North America in 1990, which was a life changing experience for all and sundry. On the tour we discussed working with Alan upon our return to the studio. The plan was for him to co-produce with Flood, which worked out perfectly. We approached Ebbhead this way because we saw how well these two could work together on Violator and wanted a more ‘musical’ approach to the songs, which is really at the core of someone like Alan as he is classically trained. The combination of that with Flood and Bon’s fantastic knob-twiddling, and my desire to ‘sing’ more, were all part of the evolution of that album.’ Ebbhead showcased a new, tortured emotional depth for Nitzer Ebb, even if it was obscured by the lurid dayglo colours of the album’s bright yellow sleeve.
‘We started as school friends who enjoyed skateboarding, music and drinking cider,’ recalls McCarthy of the halcyon youthful days from which Nitzer Ebb would eventually emerge. ‘Musically, we took our influences from a fairly eclectic array of artists and styles – Forties jazz, Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, glam, disco, punk and the post-punk scene that was emerging as we were starting to go out. Bands like The Banshees, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate, The Birthday Party, Neubauten and Malaria! were all playing live shows that we would go to. We were also listening to Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, Fad Gadget, The Human League, Abwärts, Virgin Prunes, Soft Cell and The Normal among many more.’
Nitzer Ebb signed to Mute in time for the release of their first album, 1987’s insistent That Total Age, which was produced by Daniel Miller. ‘We were very aware of Mute and Daniel Miller of course; growing up in Essex with Depeche down the road in Basildon meant it was a no-brainer. Once we had signed Dan took me and Bon over to Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin to remix ‘Let Your Body Learn’ with Gareth Jones. It was our first trip to Berlin and at the airport we ran into Diamanda Galás, who was in the process of moving there so we all took pieces of her luggage as she had a mountain of stuff and had a very amusing flight getting told off by the flight attendants. It was like being Daniel’s naughty nephews on a weekend cultural break.’ Of their former label head, McCarthy has nothing but high praise. ‘Daniel has always been full of fantastic ideas, some more fantastic than others, but he never shows any diminished excitement about a project even, as it often does, when it gets tough.’
As the interview began to wind up, it seemed appropriate to ask McCarthy about the pronunciation of Nitzer Ebb, a debate which has seen fans take two sides, those who call the band Night-zer Ebb and those who prefer Nitt-zer Ebb. McCarthy is ambiguous as ever. ‘To be honest it started off as Night-zer but after decades of Nitt-zer I slip between the two.’
Originally posted; re-posted 2018.
(c) 2012 MJA Smith / Documentary Evidence