It had already been a seriously good weekend.
It was 2010, and I’d been booked to DJ in the Strongbow Tent at Sonisphere festival, taking place at the iconic Knebworth House estate on the Friday night, and crowd duly rocked, had spent the entire following day indulging in the main bonus of DJing in a tent sponsored by Strongbow; namely, drinking as much free Strongbow as my body could handle.
Suitably lubricated, my companions and I made our way to the main stage where German metal band Rammstein were due to play their first ever outdoor festival headline set in the UK. Despite the fact that they’d been around for years and, despite the fact that they were due to headline a massive rock festival (Iron Maiden were the headliners the following night), pretty much all I knew about them was that they were a German metal band. Oh, and that apparently they had quite a bit of pyro in their stage show. I went into it completely blind.
I was absolutely unprepared for it to be one of the greatest shows I have ever seen in my life.
It is the outright greatest opening to a show I’ve ever seen in my life: a black drape spread across the front of the stage which, as a countdown finished, gave way not to reveal the stage, but an equally giant German flag, which then finally gave way to a six-headed metal beast with a singer whose mouth lit up as he unleashed a deep baritone barrage of entirely German lyrics, accompanied by some truly massive riffing, aided by the loudest bloody sound system I’d ever heard.
It looked a little like this:
We were absolutely floored. Almost literally, given the volume. And then came the fire. So much fire. A man was set alight. There were flamethrowers everywhere. It was amazing. And – crucially – it wasn’t just about the crazy stage antics. The music was brutally heavy, but it wasn’t just noise: it was melodic; it was dynamic – these were proper, well-constructed songs with absolutely banging riffs and the truly distinctive vocal style of frontman Till Lindemann.
I am very much a part-time metal fan – I don’t profess to know the difference between every microscopic subgenre, or even to know any of the acts below the top tier in any great detail – but I know a great, great band when I see one, and ever since that show I have eagerly spread the gospel of Rammstein to anyone who will listen.
However, as they release their latest live concert DVD, Rammstein: Paris, I’m still aware that, despite their huge success – and the fact that they’ve been a band for 23 years – to a great many people out there, Rammstein still means nothing more than it did to me before that astonishing night at Knebworth Park – or perhaps you’re wary of venturing into the world of a German-language metal band with a penchant for singing about cannibalism.
But it’s time you rectified that error immediately. Do not be afraid any longer, my friends.
And what better people to convince you than drummer Christoph "Doom" Schneider and guitarist Richard Z. Kruspe from the band themselves?
Granting a rare interview, luckily, the guys didn’t immediately crush my long-crystallised memory of that pivotal show, with Schneider saying: “That was, for us, a great moment. I think that was the first time we played in England on a big festival and we got to know about it, that it was a legendary place – Led Zeppelin played a famous show there – and I have a very good memory of doing that show. I remember a very good receiving by the audience, I still have a picture.”
However, I was keen to get onto the music as quickly as possible. Their sensational show has attracted a lot of their headlines, but I’ve always been adamant that, in a way, people need to look past this. I put it to Schneider that the sound of AC/DC loomed large in their style.
“Indeed, the music of AC/DC in my time was a big thing, around 1980, when I was 14 – it was a huge impact on me, it was the hardest thing I ever heard in my life! Highway to Hell came out and that was the time I was starting to learn drums, and I played along to AC/DC songs and also the classic rock bands. But the simplicity of their music left a big impression on me – that made the music so hard, for me, because it was so clear – pop structures in the songs, except the guitar solos! – but in their peak time, the guitar riffs together with this type of groove, this was a big influence not only on me, but on my other bandmates, and we are the metal AC/DC, you could say that.
“I like this kind of playing, because in that way, it’s less, but it makes the music so aggressive. Much more than classic, or dark metal bands – they’re playing so many notes – of course, if you listen to the record then maybe it’s very hard - but if you’re listening live, you just have a soup of sound.”
What also sets Rammstein apart for me is their use of other instruments to augment their sound – not for them a simple bass, drums, guitar and vocal set up; they’ve frequently taken in electronic and classical elements.
Schneider explained: “We all love classical music, that’s true, we love epic tunes and trying to make our music sound the same way… The Rammstein sound should be big and majestic and needs to blow you away, in a good way, not just noise, you need to have a great feeling. Strings sometimes help, or brass – we had one record where we used a lot of brass-sounding instruments – and on every record we think about what could be the additive except the instruments we’re playing – an electronical mood, or strings – but the strings [such as those on ‘Mutter’, below] and the choirs are always a part of some certain songs, otherwise it doesn’t sound like Rammstein if you leave them out.”
But, of course, you can’t speak about Rammstein without mentioning the Rammstein show – a report (unconfirmed by the band, but certainly not refuted) suggested that they transport the maximum legal amount of pyrotechnics allowed during a tour. That means it’s literally not possible to have more fire than at a Rammstein show. People have been carried out of concerts suffering from heat exhaustion. Schneider himself explained that “sometimes you feel you have sunburn”, while Lindemann qualified as a licensed pyrotechnician following an accident in Berlin in 1996.
Meanwhile, the other aspect of the Rammstein experience is the outrageous antics that they’ve sometimes got up to. A by-no-means exhaustive list includes: the use of porn actor doubles in their very-much-NSFW 2009 video for ‘Pussy’; their ‘dildo box set’ for Liebe ist für alle da featuring six prosthetics modelled on the bandmembers’ own, er, members; their arrest in Massachusetts in 1998 for engaging in simulated sodomy (a regular part of their set sees Lindemann simulate sex with keyboardist Christian "Flake" Lorenz), while their 2004 song ‘Mein Teil’ caused controversy for documenting the famous Armin Meiwes cannibalism case in Germany – the video seeing a cross-dressed Schneider holding the other five members on a leash and rolling around in mud.
Kruspe explained how such ideas come to pass, telling me: “The energy we have, which I think is the most important thing, is like it’s so explosive somehow that sometimes the same decision would be different if you do it by yourself. So in the context of the band, we just sometimes get carried away, it’s almost like six guys come together, they’re just like kids playing around, sometimes they’re just very naive, just putting things out, but to be naive is also to have a lot of intuition, to do things not in a way to think too much about what you want to do. It was very important that we had this naivety in the beginning, just don’t think about pleasing anyone else, just do it, and we still try to keep that – that naivety.”
The antics are clearly an expression of their own particular sense of humour, but I sometimes worry that it detracts from just how good the music is underneath.
When put to Schneider how they try and achieve the right mix of humour and spectacle without overshadowing the music, he explained:
“This is a fine and difficult balance you have to keep. We, as a band, we want to keep that balance and we are really taking care of our music and make it as best as we can, and with the same care we go for preparing a show. We have an awful lot of fun doing this kind of thing and trying to put everything to the point, and always look for the right places and times for the effects – but I agree that maybe for some people, the show of Rammstein may be more interesting than the music – probably it is like that for some – it’s right that we’re also known as a big show and pyro band – I cannot change that, but I guess also that people, if they’ve seen the show and never listened to the music before, that they maybe get into the music. We hook them by the show.”
And, really, what makes Rammstein what they are grew out of a desire to always do their own thing and not worry about the reaction.
According to Kruspe: “We had to [do our own thing], because everyone hated us! Especially in Britain, I just heard the first time, Metal Hammer gave us one star out of 10! Actually, the thing, when we started in the beginning we were really living in a bubble, we were so not desperate, there was no idea of getting huge, or getting record deals, we didn’t care! We were so much involved, almost in love with each other that we didn’t really have time to pay attention to what happened outside. We were just going along and we were just really doing things our own way and when we found it was the right way – and when we realised there was a response from the outside, which was good – but we didn’t really feel, in the beginning at least, we had to please someone. It was very important to please us first.”
So, the million dollar question – how would Rammstein themselves describe what they do to someone who’s never heard, or seen them? The casual observer, as it were?
Schneider: “Rammstein is a very beautiful band if you have the braveness to look behind that rough face that we have, for the normal world, but if you want to open that door you can find a lot of treasure in there, and a world of nice melodies and the lyrics – but they’re in German! Some people say ‘this is too much for me’, but you need to step into it and it’s not that crazy anymore.”
Kruspe: “I think if you haven’t heard then obviously the thing you really have to do is to see the band, because even if you’re not into the music, the visual show is fantastic, it’s like something that you’ve never seen before, it’s an energy that brings you somewhere – it’s like mixing LSD and speed together! A lot of people say that they weren’t really interested in the music but they come to me and say ‘wow, now I understand the band’, when they see us live. It’s spectacular. It’s like a Bruce Willis meets a David Lynch movie somehow, with a romantic side to it, which I love. There’s a lot of elements in our show, I think people appreciate that, to go through those emotions. At the end of the day, we all create something to touch someone – hopefully – and if that happens, I think you did something right. And then it doesn’t really matter what kind of language you sing.”
I couldn’t put it any better myself.
Rammstein: Paris is out now, tour dates and other information can be found here