Complex Industrialist: Douglas J. McCarthy (interview, 2012)

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

Nitzer Ebb – NE + HH Live At The Markthalle (Major Records DVD, 2012)

dvd / 2 x lp // NE + HH Live At The Markthalle

major records | dvd 1nepdvd2012 | 02/12/2012
2 x lp edition: | 2 x lp ezr011 | 02/02/2013

NE + HH Live At The Markthalle is Nitzer Ebb‘s first live concert DVD and was released by Major Records, a German imprint, in late 2012. The film captures the trio of Doug McCarthy, Bon Harris and Jason Payne at the Markthalle in Hamburg (Hamburg’s city code on car registration plates being HH, hence the title) on 30 December 2011 as part of a worldwide tour to promote Industrial Complex, the band’s first album since 1994’s Big Hit. The DVD was released as a limited, numbered edition of 500 (mine was #479) swathed in a black sleeve with bold, This Total Age packaging and a booklet of photos and credits.

Nitzer Ebb have always had a very definite image, mostly through their sleeve designs and use of simple but bold logos, and there’s something about the way the trio are dressed on stage that doesn’t quite seem to fit with that. Doug is dressed in a suit and tie, slim-fit white shirt and sunglasses, looking youthful and effortlessly cool, like he’d walked into the Markthalle straight from a Ferrari parked on the curbside after a long day of directing a movie in LA; Bon and Jason on the other hand are both wearing baggy slacks and braces, for all intents and purposes looking a little like extras from The Untouchables. What’s most remarkable is that Doug manages to keep his tie and shades on for the whole show – I have to loosen my tie just from the exertion of sitting at a desk writing emails all day, let alone leaping about a stage for nearly ninety minutes.

Throughout, Doug stalks the stage menacingly, every word delivered with an aggressive confrontational air; Jason casually bashes out percussion and percussion like he’s not really concentrating; Bon smacks pads and various percussion instruments with the same rude grace that a kid would approach a toy drum, waving his sticks aloft and generally looking like he’s having a lot of fun.

‘Let Your Body Learn’ is all aggressive, faithful urgency while ‘Shame’ has a real sense of the emphatic, even if it seems a bit lightweight delivered straight after the set’s opener. ‘Hearts And Minds’ becomes a minimal electro funk track, with Doug pointing a finger at the crowd every time he he shouts the word ‘you‘. Industrial Complex‘s ‘Once You Say’ includes synths that sound like pure electricity, blended with a tight rhythmic strictness, Doug and Bon commanding the crowd with the lyric ‘move that body‘ like they needed any more encouragement.

Alongside a particularly energetic ‘Control I’m Here’, two of the set’s highlights are the classics ‘Lightning Man’ and ‘Blood Money’. ‘Lightning Man’ sounds as noir as ever, the jazz / latin fusion and aggressive chorus at the centre still sounding unexpected after the muttered prose of the verses. ‘Blood Money’ is approached with a much harder edge than the album original, with Doug appearing to be taken over by the sampled religious talk of spirits toward the end, body jerking manically, just as it does on the cynical ‘Payroll’, only here interspersed with lewd gestures when he sings ‘you better suck it‘. The same sense of sexuality appears on ‘For Fun’ with Doug emphasising the point with some dubious hand gestures and by holding his crotch for most of the song.

‘Ascend’ is given a plaintive, emotional reading but the dense build of the music seems a bit lost as Doug’s vocal is just a little too loud. Most of ‘Join In The Chant’ is true to form – a series of shouted motifs over a thudding drum track, metallic percussion and a sluggish, funky bassline – but it’s spoiled by some percussion sounds at the start and end that make it sound like a PWL pop track; I genuinely thought it was going to open out into ‘The Locomotion’ by Kylie. Perhaps it was intended as a tongue in cheek reference to PWL mixmaster Phil Harding having worked with the band on This Total Age, but despite my reservations, the crowd clearly love it.

After a very long wait for an encore, we’re rewarded with a storming version of ‘Getting Closer’, Doug and Bon prowling the stage and flinging their lines out into the audience like cluster bombs, followed by ‘I Give To You’, which sounds as majestically sinister and harrowing as ever.

My only criticism of what is an otherwise good film is the over-emphasis on crowd footage. There are so many shots of the tall blonde woman in the front row that I’m starting to think she’s actually part of the band. Overall though, it’s a small gripe for what is a good, if not lavishly-produced, document of Nitzer Ebb on stage.

The DVD also includes murky versions of ‘Let Your Body Learn’, ‘Shame’, ‘Hearts And Minds’ (sounding a little like a proto acid house track) and ‘Lightning Man’ recorded at the Blackfield Festival in 2008. Doug – complete with military jackboots – appears to have been in a bad mood that day, and only really seems switched on when delivering a particularly emphatic version of the last track (though he also seems to miss some of his cues to start singing). Also included is an interview with Bon, Doug and Jason sitting on the end of a bed in someone’s very basic hotel room. Bon and Doug do most of the talking, and subjects vary from stuff about how demoralising it can be to go out on tour, to how chilled out it is to live and work in LA, and to Bon and Jason’s then-current work developing characters for stop-motion animation. The most interesting chat comes when they discuss how various tracks on Industrial Complex came about, including an amusing deadpan comment from Doug about roping Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore in to do backing vocals on ‘Once You Say’ because they wanted ‘a big, busty black woman sound’. There’s also a frank acknowledgment that trying to write a song like ‘Down On Your Knees’ in the style of ‘Let Your Body Learn’ is really difficult and that it’s ‘hard to regain that naïvete again in the studio’. Bon goes on to admit resignedly that it took two months to come up with a simple bassline for the track.

Since I started writing this, it’s been announced that will release a limited-edition audio version of the Markthalle gig as a double LP in February 2012. According to the press release the album will be released as a limited edition of 500 copies in a gatefold sleeve, 400 of which will be pressed on transparent vinyl while the remaining copies will be issued on red vinyl inside a box containing a t-shirt, flag, badge and poster. Undoubtedly one for the Nitzer Ebb completist only.

Thanks to Hayo at Major Artists for the review copy of the DVD, and also to Jürgen for the vinyl press release and for reminding me about German number-plates.

1. Intro
2. Let Your Body Learn
3. Shame
4. Hearts And Minds
5. Once You Say
6. Lightning Man
7. For Fun
8. Hit You Back
9. Blood Money
10. Payroll
11. Godhead
12. Ascend
13. Down On Your Knees
14. Murderous
15. Control I’m Here
17. Join In The Chant
18. Getting Closer
19. I Give To You

Blackfield Festival:
1. Let Your Body Learn
2. Shame
3. Hearts And Minds
4. Lightning Man

1. Jason Payne, Doug McCarthy and Bon Harris interview

A1. Intro
A2. Let Your Body Learn
A3. Shame
A4. Hearts And Minds
A5. Once You Say
B1. Lightning Man
B2. For Fun
B3. Hit You Back
B4. Blood Money
B5. Payroll
C1. Godhead
C2. Ascend
C3. Down On Your Knees
C4. Murderous
C5. Control I’m Here
D1. Join In The Chant
D2. Getting Closer
D3. I Give To You

First published 2012; re-edited 2015

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence