Meet Best Protest Song Nominee: Atari Teenage Riot

Posted June 5

Atari Teenage Riot has been living up to its tempestuous name for more than 20 years now, and their most recent incendiary single, “Black Flags,” does little to deviate from this trend. Late last year, ATR called upon their fans to help create a series of videos for the jam, a powerful collection of mini documentaries that has earned the band an O Music Award nomination for “Best Protest Song.”

After rallying hard against fascism in the ’90s, Atari Teenage Riot reemerged after 11 years with last summer’s Is This Hyperreal? When it came time to create a video for the single “Black Flags” — a fist-pumping protest against corporate greed — they asked fans to chip in. The band posted the tune to Soundcloud, asking folks to send in clips of themselves standing in front of black flags lip-syncing the tune, or “corpsing,” “the act of laying down in a public location, covered in a black flag to represent those that have died as result of corporate greed.”

Responses poured in from the likes of online hacktivist group Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street protestors and students rallying for better education in Chile, and the band started pumping out videos laden with fan-made clips. Currently, they have created three videos from the fan footage, video patchworks that alter the meaning of the song depending on which protests they feature.

In light of the the band’s O Music Awards nomination, we caught up with lead singer Alec Empire to find out more about the project and what the band has learned from the whole endeavor.

So I understand you’re pretty excited about your nomination.

Yeah, of course, especially with this type of video. It started as some sort of viral fan thing and not as something that special. I think with the way that it evolved with all these people that came onboard and sent in footage and the message that got out, it’s amazing to be recognized. It’s not the usual way we would make a video — like with a director and the editing to the song — if was a very open concept and I was very surprised after months how far this got.

With the Anonymous activists and then WikiLeaks sending us footage, the students from Chile, from the protests there, the anti-nuclear demonstations in Japan — those people sending us stuff. It almost became a little documentary about the last half year, nine months of activism. I think that’s quite special. You can’t make a treatment like that for a video — it’s just something that happens or it doesn’t. I think that it all worked out in a very interesting way.

So what exactly was the genesis of the song and video? How did it become such an anthem?

The song was one of the first ideas I had when we decided to make a new record, because a lot of that stuff was in the media back then — there were the first Anonymous DDoS attacks, WikiLeaks was facing this financial blockade by MasterCard and all these big companies, and I realized, ‘OK, this is stuff that was not going on in the ’90s.’ There’s certain political topics that you can speak about almost like in any decade; it seems they would not really change. For example, if you talk about wars or stuff like that. In this case, I found the amount of activism that is happening online and how it translates into what we call ‘non-virtual world’ — that was something really new and fresh. Especially coming from a generation now that grew up with this technology and is not just one to passively consume and then share stuff online.

Now it’s like, ‘OK, let’s have an impact on this world and let’s speak out about things that we don’t like.’ I found this extremely interesting, so we wrote the song in December or January 2011 and it took a half year until we decided to put it out as a single. We thought it would be a really interesting topic also to bring to the fans and see how they reacted to these lyrics.

So you immediately decided to crowd-source this video?

Actually, there was another concept that was planned that we couldn’t get done in time if we wanted to stick to the release plan that we had. So we thought, ‘OK, why don’t we just create a viral idea where we have fans participate in the video and also make sure that people actually focus and pay attention to the lyrics.’ So it started as a very small idea to just get in touch with the fanbase, but then we got so many clips sent in.

What exactly did you ask fans to do in the footage they sent in?

You stand in front of a black flag and you kind do a protest against the kind of greed that kills around the world. We didn’t even want to point a finger at a country or government. It was more a principle: ‘How did we get into this situation where all these people die all around the world?’

It’s almost like the population doesn’t even know anymore what’s right, what’s wrong. Why did we do this? Why are we involved in this war or that country? That is what a lot of countries have in common — America, Germany, England, Japan, even people in Russia told us the same stuff. They don’t even understand why this is all going on.

And all different kinds of groups contributed, no? The meaning of the song expanded with who participated in the video.

I thought this was an interesting concept to use the black flag in this context to say, ‘No matter where you come from, if you agree with that — that we have to question this — put yourself in the video.’ And then Anonymous were like, ‘OK, we’re wearing the Guy Fawkes masks, is that OK? Because we can’t show our faces.’ So I was like, ‘Yeah, please.’

What made it interesting was that two weeks, three weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protests started, that’s when people started sending in clips from those protests and then protests happened all over the world, basically. I think this is when the concept became something else and much more interesting to look at. Also it spread a wider message; we got stuff from all over the planet basically. That’s when we thought, ‘OK, let’s open this concept up. Let’s not just stick to this small idea we had in the beginning. Let’s just make it open and have all these voices heard.’

I think this was also what was so interesting about the last few months of all this activism going on, that you didn’t have these typical sides going, ‘OK, you’re a Democrat, you’re a Republican, blah, blah, blah,’ it was just all kinds of different people and all kinds of age groups coming together and going, ‘Look, we have to find solutions.’

I met so many amazing people during that time also, some activists who help bloggers in Syria to keep their websites up. It’s really dangerous out there to even speak out against the authorities. I met a new generation of people who don’t do that for fame or for being credited; they just want to help other people. I thought this was incredible to have something like this going on at this time when everybody thought people are passive and they just want to consume and they don’t care. Of course there is a lot of that stuff still, but I think the group of people that want to change stuff is growing. And I think that it’s a positive thing. It’s not just a destructive thing. I feel a little bit sad about how things are reportered in the media, because it comes across as something destructive and negative, which I think if you meet these people it’s the exact opposite.

Are you working on any other protest songs? What are you guys up to?

We’re making a new album right now. Any Atari Teenage Riot song is almost like a dogma. We don’t write love songs or anything like that. It’s always about a topic that we find interesting. We are just taking a small break from recording and going on tour in South America. When we get back we’ll basically gather all these topics and go, ‘Is this an interesting story to tell? Is this an interesting way to bring something to the table that should be up for debate?’

A lot of the stuff that we do, we form a very radical theory or thought or idea because we want people to think about it or react to it and even maybe criticize it. I think it’s quite exciting, how people react to this stuff [after] two decades, because it’s not the usual type of music. It kind of grabs you in a different way, and of course that’s something you want as a musician — that it has an effect on what you do and it means something instead of just another random song online.

You mentioned the Internet before, but I was curious — since you’ve been around for a while — what the biggest difference is now in terms of getting your message out. Now that we have such accessibility online.

The biggest change is distribution in that way. That people can find [our music], and with it they can find a lot of other information. For example, I thought it was important with the video that we were able to provide more links and more background information [as to] why we actually wrote the song. In the ’90s you would release a song and it could lead to misunderstandings. A lot of the stuff that we wrote about in the ’90s, you kind of have to see it in the context of the history of Germany. If somebody doesn’t know so much about it, and we say stuff against the government, they would have problems really understanding why we’re that angry. Now, even when people attack us or criticize us for [our songs], we can have a debate online.

Image courtesy of The Hellish Vortex