Aug. 31 2011 11:33 AM

’90s cyper-punk band hates reunions -- except when they mean something

Alec Empire (right) mostly hates bands that reunite.
Photo by The Hellish Vortex

Let’s face it -- most of the time, rock reunions are pretty stupid.

Sometimes they can be kinda cool, allowing music fans another chance to see a beloved group. Some bands do it right (Led Zeppelin, Wire, Pavement), but most just end up looking like a bunch of farcical geezers in it for a quick buck (The Rolling Stones, New York Dolls and don’t even get me started on the mid-’90s reunion of Sex Pistols).

Alec Empire knows he’s in a precarious position. In a phone interview, the brain behind Atari Teenage Riot says he was more than apprehensive when the idea arose of reuniting the influential ’90s cyber-punk band.

“I mostly hate bands that reform,” Empire says, reflecting on the day that co-founder Hanin Elias called him after nine years of not speaking. “For me, personally, it just never worked. As a music fan, I often just felt disappointed. When I saw the Pixies, the passion and what made the music so exciting for me was not there. That feeling of what I loved about it was not there.

“So when [Elias] contacted me, she was, like, ‘Look, why don’t we just do a London show to kind of make peace?’ I was skeptical, but I also thought, Why not give it a try?”

I was also skeptical. I discovered ATR in the prime of my teenage rebellion years. In the mid ’90s, here was a group that brought together the edgy beats of techno, the politically aggressive spirit of punk and the militant consciousness of hip-hop (thanks to the group’s resident MC, Carl Crack, who died in 2001). They were tangential libertines with a predilection for Casios and MIDI controllers (check out the YouTube video of them playing in the middle of a Berlin riot in 1999 if you need proof of their street cred). Oh, and it didn’t hurt that you could dance or mosh to it. Whichever you prefer. 

Since its start in 1992, the Berlin group built a small but devoted following on the strength of a handful of great singles, tons of remixes and one fantastic, American-released album (1997’s Burn, Berlin, burn!). But they burned out at exactly the right (or wrong?) time -- it was 1999 and W., 9/11 and war, war, war was right around the corner.

It was with a mix of excitement and cynicism that, in April 2010, I listened to the band’s first new song in more than a decade. Neither a droll retread nor a stylistic leap forward, “Activate!” sounded exactly how it should have sounded -- like a group of musical Paul Reveres, rising again -- not to warn us this time, but to simply say, “We told you so!”

“There were things that we thought would turn out negative,” Empire says. “Like globalization -- we see the results now better than we could have explained it then. I remember people asking me in the ’90s, ‘Why do you care about this stuff?’ And I’d say, ‘This can lead to you not having a house anymore. I think you should think about this stuff.’”

Another reason Atari Teenage Riot’s reunion works is that their style is as popular as ever. Anyone familiar with them would probably argue that groups like Crystal Castles, The Bloody Beetroots and M.I.A. owe a huge debt to ATR.

“What I didn’t have on my radar at all was the crowds that were coming to the new shows,” Empire says. “All these young Crystal Castles fans and people with M.I.A. T-shirts. I didn’t even think that those people would even know about us.”

One such fan is DJ and producer Steve Aoki, who approached the group and told them that if they wanted to release a new record, he would put it out on his influential electro label Dim Mak. Released earlier this year, Is This Hyperreal? centers on what Empire calls “hacker activism” but also tackles everything from corporate criminals (“Black Flags”) to human trafficking (“Blood in My Eyes”).

“When we thought about doing new stuff, we didn’t want to address the same things from the ’90s again,” Empire says. “Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much have the same opinions -- that it’s important for people to take control and determine their own lives and don’t just hand that over to the governments.”

But perhaps the best reason why the reunion works is -- as I realized after seeing them live in L.A. last year -- because they’re doing it for the right reasons.

“If we feel like this is getting into some kind of routine like other bands where they just show up at a festival and collect the cash, well, that would just be too depressing,” Empire says. “Either you mean it or you don’t do it.”

Atari Teenage Riot plays with Retox and Otto Von Schirach at Porter’s Pub at UCSD on Thursday, Sept. 8.