Sascha Konietzko is founder, bassist, programmer, sometime-vocalist, producer and focal point for the German/American industrial group KMFDM (which stands for “Kleine Mitleid Fur Das Mehrheit,” translated “No Pity For the Majority”), perfecters of the metal guitar and electronic beats approach to industrial music.
KMFDM has released classic albums Money, Angst, Naive/Hell To Go, Nihil, and Xtort, which feature some of industrial’s best songs: “Virus,” “Godlike,” “Money,” “Light,” “A Drug Against War,” “Sucks,” and “Juke Joint Jezebel” – every one of which features razor-sharp guitars, a hummable tune, clever lyrics, and a danceable beat in the funky-to-brutal range.
Sascha Konietzko was born in 1961 and grew up in Hamburg, Germany. He chafed under a typically conservative father who didn’t approve of his son’s music (“What’s all this fucking hippie-type, hash-consuming, nincompoop doodling noise?”), friends, hair (“hippie-to-be little girl”), or contemptuous attitude.
Young Konietzko was torn between respect for his father’s idiosyncratic pleasures (a professional hydrologist, Konietzko senior recorded tribal beats as a hobby while testing water along the Congo for the Belgian Royal Zoo), and rebellion against his father’s autocratic ways.
Konietzko, a bassist, joined his first band when he was 11. His most pervasive early influences were glam-rockers like T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Sweet and Slade. In 1976, when punk rock was bubbling up in England and America, Konietzko was in the first punk band in Hamburg.
“It was definitely a very interesting time to make music. Punk rock really opened my eyes in terms of ‘you can just do it’: if there are enough people who think it’s cool, then it’s just cool. It doesn’t need any education, just a fucking urge. That liberated me from all kinds of constraints that were put on me by my parents and society in general,” he said.
“Needless to say, everyone hated us: we were spitting beer, throwing raw meat and dead mice into the audience.”
In the late-’70s, another, even more radical musical form emerged: “industrial” music (with instrumentation including power tools, and metal objects beaten upon with implements of destruction) created by bands like Throbbing Gristle, SPK, and a little later, Berlin’s Einsturzende Neubauten (“Collapsing New Buildings”).
“Everything started to take shape, and I was really intrigued by the idea of a mix of industrial aggression with a more-musical expression that was maybe going against the industrial ideal. I still liked glam rock, and I liked the industrialists, too. I could pretend that I was a hard-liner and industrial noise was the coolest thing to listen to, but deep down, listening to metal vessels being smashed against each other continuously was not my idea of art. I’ve always felt there must be some sort of hybrid solution.”
KMFDM was formed by Konietzko and German painter/performance artist Udo Sturm, on February 29, 1984 to perform for the opening of an exhibition of young European artists at the Grand Palais in Paris. The performance consisted of Konietzko on five bass guitars run through five amplifiers placed “in strategically significant areas of the huge turn-of-the-century steel and glass construction,” Sturm on a “fragmented Arp-2600 synthesizer in feedback mode,” and “four Polish coal miners putting their tools of trade to work on the buildings,” he recalls.
Back in Hamburg, Konietzko started anther band called Missing Foundations with “audio-anarchist” Peter Missing, and, in conjunction with that band met percussionist/multi-instrumentalist En Esch. Konietzko, En Esch and Englishman Raymond “Pig” Watts then began to record as “KMFDM.”
The first KMFDM album, What Do You Know, Deutschland?, on the local Skysaw label, came out in ’86. The band met woodcut artist Brute in ’87, who has created their distinctive, brutish cover art ever since.
In ’88 the band’s next album, Don’t Blow Your Top, was licensed by Chicago’s industrial-leaning Wax Trax! label, thereby introducing the band to America. Konietzko was becoming a producer.
“On [Don’t Blow Your Top] I found myself taking on the role of coaching people into performances, saying ‘This was actually pretty good, but I think you can do it better, and don’t scream so much.’ The engineer was referring to me as ‘producer,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s producing.’
The band’s breakthrough came with the release of two singles, counted among industrial’s greatest hits: “Virus” in ’89, and “Godlike” in ’90. “Virus” features an enormous guitar riff laid over a chunky hip-hop beat (evocative of the first Beastie Boys album), with distorted vocals comparing the contagiousness of society’s ills with that of a virus, disseminated by the reckless pursuit of “more and faster.”
A slashing guitar line reminiscent of Slayer opens the medium-tempo chugger “Godlike,” a tale of the seductive powers of fascism, keyed to the line, “Get on the right side/And you’ll be godlike.” Adventuresome dance floors from coast to coast succumbed to the band’s (now transplanted to the U.S.) Teutonic powers.
KMFDM has mutated often around central figures Konietzko and En Esch. “It’s been a circle of people who find themselves again and again for recording. Everybody from the past always pops up in the future at some point, and it has become this organizational nightmare to keep it all together – to blend everybody’s ideas into one product, one outcome. That’s the most challenging part about it, and the most fascinating,” said Konietzko.
The band’s process of recording has become automated against time and space. “I live in Seattle,” Konietzko said, “En Esch lives in New York, and Gunter – the guitarist – lives in British Columbia, so we have to send stuff around digitally. This just happened: I whipped out a bass and drum track, and sent it to Gunter in Canada. He worked on it for a couple of weeks. I got the tape back, and instead of guitar, he did some weird sequencing stuff.
“I said ‘Wow, you were supposed to do guitar.’ He said, ‘Well I didn’t feel like it, I felt like doing this other stuff.’ Then I think ‘Okay, I guess this song isn’t going to have a lot of guitar.’ But I am coping with it. The material always comes back to me, so I guess I’m the focal point.
“I ‘produce away’ when I get their material back: ‘This is pretty cool.’ ‘This we’re going to turn into the verse.’ ‘This is going to be the chorus.’ Then we talk about vocal stuff, lyric ideas, concepts.
“Then it comes to the performance. ‘Do I sing this?’ ‘Does En Esch sing that?’ ‘Do we sing it together, or is one the guest musicians going to be involved?’ I have a small MIDI studio – a little basement-type situation. I use it pretty much for all the preproduction type of work, but then the real mixing and overdubbing happens at a big studio. You can figure that once an album is in stores, we are already working on the next one because it takes so fucking long,” he concluded.
KMFDM has built a fervent world-wide audience by touring and by the steady release of consistent, yet surprisingly varied material. ’95’s Nihil even boasted a modern rock radio hit, the catchy “Juke Joint Jezebel.” Each album has generally sold more than the one before, with Xtort topping the 200,000 mark – extraordinary for a genre band on an indie label.
Marvels Konietzko, “Our following has some really cultish dimensions that have been interesting and freaky at the same time. My phone number has to be one of the best-guarded secrets, but when I get a new one it pops out on the Internet in no time at all. En Esch is being shredded apart: we do a show – any show anywhere – and people frantically take pieces of his flesh and his garments as souvenirs.
“It seems almost like a disease: they learn about us and then there is this need to have everything that we have done – every time we have a new album, all our other albums kick in as well. There are probably hundreds of ‘KMFDM’ license plates and thousands of tattoos.”
Konietzko ended with a little tale. “A little while ago I was in Chicago taking my wife’s grandmother, who is in a wheelchair, down to the lake for a little walk. I am rolling her through the park and there is this wedding party somewhere in the bushes. They are taking pictures and all of a sudden I hear my name and these people – the bride and groom and bridesmaids – are running to me, ‘You’re Sascha, can we take a picture with you?’ In the meantime, Grandma is like, ‘Who are those people? What do they want from you?’ She knows what I do, but she doesn’t hear so well and was baffled and flustered by these people chasing us around. And of course the people are like ‘Oh, that’s so nice of you taking Grandma to the lake.'”
KMFDM is back as strong as ever with a new album, World War lll, just out on Sanctuary.