Stromkern began in 1994 as the solo project of J. Ned Kirby in Madison, Wisconsin. After a couple of songs made it into compilations, Stromkern was offered a record deal not by a home label but by the german Kodex/Sushia Light.
Since then, Stromkern had some more critically acclaimed releases but still remained more well-known abroad than at home. Recently, Stromkern went from being a one-man project to becoming a band with the addition of Kelly Schaeffer (keyboards and programming), Rob Wentz (keyboards) and Matt Berger (drums).
Musically original, a fluid combination of EBM, classical and hip-hop and great lyrics, Stromkern’s main distinguishing feature is J. Ned Kirby’s unique vocal style: deep and clear vocals, with obvious hip-hop influences, creating an ambiance by itself sometimes bringing an almost rap-like quality to Stromkern’s songs.
C.B. – Can you give us some insight into the beginnings of Stromkern as a musical project? How did it initially come to be?
I was DJing a lot, and really into goth rock, and hip hop, and had all these years of classical music training and a love of techno, and everything coming out in ’94 seemed to suck. So I thought, I must simply do this myself, I must. So I got some crappy gear, and some not-so-crappy gear, and got started.
C.B. – And, of course, why the name ‘Stromkern’ (core of flow/river/current. my german is residual at best)?
Ah, the stupid name. So: I’m 17. So: I wanted to have a cool German name for my band, so I ask this German grad student friend how to say “eye of the storm” in German, and she tells me. Little do I know this word doesn’t exist. So: it gets onto a couple of compilations, at which point I learn some German and discover the name doesn’t mean squat, but figure it’s too late to do anything about it. So, yeah. The Germans get all up in arms about it (“Strom kann kein Kern haben!”) but they seem to remember it. Next time I’ll just name the band “Infection 2019” or something easy like that.
C.B. – Before Stromkern, were you involved in any musical projects or activities?
I was playing piano, and cello in orchestras… but no other bands per se.
C.B. – An interesting aspect of your musical background is a formal classical training as a pianist and as a cellist, which also appears to have a marked influence in Stromkern’s sound. Another obvious influence appears to be hip-hop, mostly evident in your singing.
Having had training in classical music, how and why did you end up drifting towards electronic music?
Dunno. I was a big techno/house freak for years, and of course the day I first discovered Nitzer Ebb and Information Society and all that shit was a big to-do. I’m not sure why I drifted over to the dark side, though; that was the music I was listening to, and so when I decided to start doing it myself…
C.B. – Was your training as a classical musician instrumental in the shaping of Stromkern’s sound, not just as an influence but also in practical aspects of musical creation?
I think so, definitely. The sorts of structures and arrangements and chord progressions and so on, at least in the early stuff, were very much influenced by all the training I’d had. I’ve spent the last few years sort of consciously “unlearning” a lot of it, so as to be able to expand my horizons, or narrow them I suppose…
C.B. – About musical influences, what would you say were your main ones in the past and what are they nowadays? Any bands, musicians or composers in particular?
There were… I mean I listened to shitloads of stuff, as a DJ, but there were a few records that really made me go “I gotta do this myself”. Coil’s “Scatology”, Second Voice’s “Murder She Said”, Non-Aggression Pact’s “9mm Grudge”, Mentallo & The Fixer’s “Revelations 23”, Meat Beat Manifesto’s “Armed Audio Warfare”. Swamp Terrorists. And Attrition. The whole classical thing came from Attrition. For many years I just wanted to be Attrition, basically. “Hardwire”, from “Flicker Like A Candle”, is more or less just me trying to write an Attrition song. I heard the Tricky & DJ Muggs and Grease record right before I started the final mixes for “Armageddon” and I was making a conscious effort to emulate some of the production of that record, which is brilliant. “Dämmerung Im Traum” was influenced heavily by the first Forma Tadre record, which is still brilliant, to this day its brilliant. And Haujobb. Everybody loves Haujobb, and with good reason.
But, you know, everyone has other influences, I dunno… I mean I think what influences you is probably different from what you listen to, although what you listen to can influence you in interesting ways. I don’t think we sound like the Dismemberment Plan, but for all the Dismemberment Plan I listen to, you’d think we have a right to.
These days, influence is from producers. Kelly and I are just trying to squeeze every trick we can from the books of Timbaland and Swizz Beats and Organized Noize. And I like a lot of more rocky stuff. If I could make the next record sound like Placebo’s “Black Market Music” I’d be happy. Placebo, with more strings and hip-hop beats. Imagine the “Nefilim” record with Nelly doing vocals. See, the possibilities are endless.
I do like a lot of stuff, but I try to keep a lot of it from influencing Stromkern – because I want the project to sound like what it is, whatever that is. Divergent interests are the stuff side projects are meant to be made of.
C.B. – Looking back at your “career” as Stromkern, it is evident that you achieved some notoriety and projection while relatively young (at least by comparison to most artists in this field). How did that and the doors that it opened affect your life and future plans at the time?
You think? I feel old as the hills and don’t feel like the band has gotten anywhere. It’s like no one knows who we are. But it’s nice to hear you say that ;-)
Stromkern has always been a major, if not the major, focus of my life and all else tends to get subjugated to it. I’ll quit jobs, move, whatever, to facilitate the process of making records and touring. That’s starting to change, somewhat, but that’s also because the band is, at least on some level, established, so I… I guess I feel like I have to try twice as hard now, but in some senses, certain things are a little easier. But there are also other things I want to be doing, other interests I have, so I’m not sure I want to forego all of them just to be able to jump around on stage like an idiot a few times a year.
C.B. – Oddly, your first record deal was on a german label (Kodex/Sushia Light, 1996) and only relatively recently were you given a record deal by an American label (Wax Trax II). Why do you think that it took so long to be signed on a ‘home’ label? Do you feel that the acclaim you have abroad was a factor in being signed by Wax Trax II?
Yeah, I mean I’d been in negotiations with Bart [WTII label head] when he still worked for Wax Trax! – when there still was a Wax Trax! – about signing with them. This was before “Dämmerung im Traum” was even out in Germany, during the long doldrums of 1998-99, where I was sitting in Germany with a finished record that no one wanted to put out. That album was done for 14 months before Kodex dropped me, and Scanner picked it up. But the US thing never came to pass – Wax Trax was on the outs with TVT, and William Tucker died, and it was just one thing after another.
When we were touring with Icon of Coil in early 2001, before “Armageddon” was finished, we were getting offers from some other US labels, but none of them really seemed all that willing to pursue it, and WTII was willing to, and I wanted the record out here, so we went with them, even though they’re not the biggest fish in the pond. Will I regret that decision, I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to be said for a good artists/label relationship, and having them like the music even if they can’t push it the way a bigger label can. You build a relationship with them, you’re important to them and they’re important to you, as opposed to just being another number in a catalogue.
Why did it take so long? (1) there aren’t a lot of US labels. (2) the basic US label philosophy for the last few years has been “let’s see what sells well on import, and license it. That way, we don’t have to do any A&R, we don’t have to do any real work, we just put the record out and let it sell to this built-in, established fan base, and be done with it”. We never quite made that leap to being a well-established EBM act, and as the years have gone by we’ve gotten further from that sound – I mean it’s just a little too weird for the Pitchfork crowd, or whatever. Or maybe it’s because it’s not that good, I don’t know. But I think all the work is starting to pay off, because we do seem to have a following, and I think after the next record, we’ll find out just how much the work has paid off and just who is willing to do what.
C.B. – Nowadays, at Scanner, you collaborated with Cycloon by writing lyrics and doing guest vocals for a couple of tracks. How did that collaboration come to be? Do you have plans for future collaborations of this kind with other bands? And upcoming remixes by Stromkern?
Axel, from Cycloon, is a freak, and a really nice guy, and when Dämmerung came out he called me up and left this awesome message, in German, that was like, “Ned – man – dude – man – Ned – this is like – the best thing I’ve heard in – like – 7 to 10 years.” it was great. We stuck it on the end of the “Night Riders” EP, if you wait until the very, very end. So he asked me to do some stuff, and I did, and it was OK; and then a year or so later, he asked me again, and I said yes again, although I really didn’t have the time to do it, and I sat on it for about 6 months until he was like “OK I need this in 3 days, where is it?” And then I did “New Patterns” which turned out to be great, people seem to really like that track.
I’d like to do more stuff with other people. I’m supposedly going to take part in Tyler Newman’s K-Ninjas project, if I ever write the fucking lyrics. That’s me, being lazy. We’ve done a lot of remixes, none of them terribly high-profile, but some have been lots of fun. The Attrition one, from years ago, that was good. We just finished one for cut.rate.box that’s really good. The Informatik one was fun, we got to try out a bunch of new gear.
Upcoming mixes: I owe Battery Cage a remix. And we owe Seabound a remix. And I owe Haujobb a remix. And… shit, we owe a lot of people remixes.
Beyond that, we’re probably going to not do any unless we’re getting paid, because we just don’t have the time. But you never know. I always say that, and then 3 months later I have 6 remixes to do.
C.B. – Stromkern used to be a one-man band. With the addition of Kelly Schaffer and other musicians to the permanent line-up there were some noticeable changes to Stromkern’s sound. How did the addition of Kelly Schaffer and other musicians to the permanent line-up influence Stromkern’s creative process?
Kelly sort of gives me half-finished tracks, or finished tracks that I deconstruct. He really has helped me focus on certain aspects of the sound, on paring it down to what it needs to be. And having a drummer has been great, because you have someone to say “no, you don’t do it that way, you do it this way”. It’s been really good. I enjoy being able to just have a song idea, just the basic verse-chorus-whatever, and take it to the band, and we play with it, and after a few shows it’s taken on a life of its own. Is it Stromkern? Sure, because Stromkern is whatever I say it is. And this way, it’s a lot more fun than just sitting around in a studio in front of a computer, quantizing drum loops. Allowing other people to be a vital part of the creative process has started the project down the road of transforming from a “project” to a “band”, which I just couldn’t be happier about. It’s great.
C.B. – Have you already begun work on the next album? Considering the evolution from “Flicker Like a Candle”, through “Dämmerung Im Traum” to “Armageddon”, what can be expect from an upcoming Stromkern album?
Well, we have one new song, “Ruin”, that we’ve been playing a lot. And a bunch of ideas. But I feel like all the demos, up until now, are just rehashing the “Armageddon” sessions, so it’s going to be awhile until the next record is done. I’d like to say something will be out next year, but I make no promises. We still have a lot of work to do pushing this one… I mean, I think it’s a good record, a solid record, so it deserves some time invested in it. I don’t want to just hurry up and throw out another release just to say “look, we can release a record every year”. Especially because now it seems like people might actually be listening, or something.
What can you expect? I think it will definitely be a more “live” sounding album. Less studio trickery and more RAWK. Well, maybe not so much rawk, but… basically, I just want real drums, and that’s the end of that. But I’d like to revisit some of the more introspective, classical moments as well, I think we lost some of that on “Armageddon” and I’d like to find a balance.
C.B. – Unlike what frequently happens in the electro music genre, your lyrics make sense and appear to be worked out to become an integral part of a song instead of just filler-up material.
Where do you usually draw inspiration for your lyrics? Personal experiences, world events, literary and musical sources…?
There’s a lot of personal stuff in there, sure. I just look at the world around me, and try to write a song. My lyrics end up being very personal, to me, but hard to talk about, not because they’re painful or anything, but often because I don’t quite know how to talk about them. The lyrics, the music, it’s all a big package. You can’t dissect it. It’s a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and if I could do it in any individual part, I wouldn’t need to be spending bazillions of dollars and years of my life making these records.
I’m starting to get more into storytelling in my lyrics. We’ll see what happens. Usually, I just try to start with a concept. Like “Perfect Sunrise”, we were like, OK, I have this line, “if God wants to punish you he’ll answer your prayers”. So, what does that mean? What does that make you think about? And the lyrics came from there. “Night Riders”, once I had that mental image of the Serbs bombing us to kingdom come, that was easy.
C.B. – How does your process of song-writing usually work? Do music and lyrics evolve simultaneously or does one take precedence over the other?
They usually evolve separately. I’ll do some music, or Kelly will, or whatever, and once we have some beats and a bassline, I’ll start working on a vocal melody, or more often a vocal rhythm; and then once that’s quasi in place, I find some words from my Folder o’ Words, and start mashing everything together until it fits.
C.B. – While the lyrics to songs in “Flicker…” and “Dämmerung…” had a more introspective feeling to them, several songs in “Armageddon” have lyrics which are metaphors (sometimes rather explicit ones, like in “Terrorist”) about ‘outside world issues’ which gives rise to the feeling that this is an album with a very marked political and ideological charge.
Was this evolution a conscious one or did it simply evolve like this?
I can see why people think this, but “Armageddon” isn’t supposed to be a political record. I don’t want to be political. I express my own viewpoint, sure, but it’s not political like Consolidated-political, or even Snog-political. A lot of stuff on “Dämmerung Im Traum” deals with the same sort of ideas – liberation, revolution, destruction, etc. – that “Armageddon” does. Hell, “Heretic” is really the basic expression of all of it; “Night Riders” just provides a setting to couch it all in…
…and for the record, “Terrorist” was written long before the 11th[– WTC bombings… S.B.]. It did have to do with the title, to a certain extent, but any other similarities are purely coincidental – and kind of frightening.
C.B. – “Armageddon” gives the idea that you have a personal interest in politics, or at least personal opinions. Are you involved in political activism of any sort?
Goodness no. I vote, I think George W. Bush is an idiot, but that’s about as far as it goes. I keep up on things, events and so on, and certainly have opinions, but I’m not an activist or anything. It just doesn’t seem like that’s the most effective way to change people’s minds. Everyone hates the fucking Greenpeace assholes asking you for 3 hours of your time to explain to you why saving the whales is a worthy investment. We *know* it is. Those people are annoying. Greenpeace does not do themselves any favours by being annoying. It seems like a much better idea to just instil in people the idea that, hey, if we just live our lives like intelligent, thoughtful human beings, we won’t get into these messes, and the whales will be just fine, and we can tell Greenpeace and their $2 billion a year “non-profit” status to go fuck themselves and leave us alone.
C.B. – What is your opinion on the evolution of the world situation since the September 11th attacks and the highly mediatized ‘War On Terrorism’, which seems more of a crusade for revenge and show of military power (as well as boosting the President’s approval ratings) instead of addressing the real causes of the problem (rampant misery, oppression, ignorance)?
Of course, that’s all it is. A quick fix. It’s no different than in 92. I mean, Clinton was a dweeb, but he was a smooth talking dweeb, and he knew how to keep a lot of people happy. Did things get better under the Clinton administration? Probably not. Did evil corporations still get trillions of dollars in tax breaks? I’m sure. But enough things were done to at least… well, I don’t know that anything *good* was actually *done*, but everyone felt like it was. We weren’t on the brink of war. We weren’t goading nuclear powers into a fight. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Clinton wasn’t all that either, and he did nothing to address the causes of the problems facing the world, but he at least seemed to keep things from getting worse. It seemed more civilized, somehow.
But, what do you want. This is the age of WWF and Fox and reality TV. People don’t care, and if the people don’t care, ain’t nuthin’ gonna happen. If enough people fuss, things will change. Now, what constitutes a fuss, that’s a different story.
Things sure aren’t looking good… I hope something can be salvaged before we all blow each other to bits. It was weird, the first 36 hours after the 11th, the whole country was actually honest for a little while. Everyone was seriously fucking freaked out, and no one knew what was up, and reactions were what they were. Two days later, of course, the machinery took over, and it was business as usual. That was the most depressing part of it for me. That, and the fact that 5000+ people died for no readily apparent reason. I think it’s important to reiterate that, although it’s easy to point fingers, and say “we had this coming”, and so on, it’s still a terrible, terrible tragedy. 5000 people die in a earthquake, that’s awful, sure; but 5000 people die as a result of a premeditated act of terror, I don’t care whose side you’re on, that’s just terrible, period.
C.B. – What are your opinions on the Internet and the concept of music sharing? What about the attacks of the ‘Big Music Industry’ on file-sharing applications claiming that it destroys music by causing profit loss (while spending millions in advertising and legal fees against P2P servers)?
Well, it does cause profit loss. No question about it. On the one hand, my first reaction to this for the last several years was just that this was the same story as the ’70s, “home taping is killing the music industry”… or the VCR. People still buy and rent movies. It’s OK. Instead of making billions and billions of dollars, they’re only making billions of dollars. But in music, it’s harder; there’s a lot more independent types, and people who used to be able to make a living at it are having a harder time of it, as a result of this file sharing business. The major artists don’t care, because they’ve always known that you don’t make any money off the sale of the stupid fucking CDs anyways: that money all goes straight back to the record label coffers, to pay off your insurmountable debt to them. You, as an artist, make money off of publishing, and t-shirt sales, and marketing the hell out of yourself. The CDs, that’s just icing on the cake. Very, very few major label bands ever see any money from the sale of CD. So for them, it’s not as much of an issue. For the *labels* it’s an issue – they’re the ones getting fucked, because the artists already have the advance money, but the labels aren’t recouping because they aren’t selling as many records, and while the artists still technically owe them the money, you can’t get blood from a stone.
There are a couple of problems, none of which are being addressed by the RIAA’s lawsuits. (1): labels are putting out shit – no, wait, *bands* are putting out shit, and the labels are encouraging them by releasing it. Quality control, very important. (2): it’s easier and cheaper to make a record than ever before, so lots more people are doing so. There’s a glut in the market. (3): people are greedy bastards who would rather take something for free because it’s easier than spending money on it. Let’s face it, people steal records, all the time, every day. It’s one thing to burn a CD from a friend – that requires effort. But to just pull it off the Net, that requires zero effort. It’s a real problem. I’d like to see it go away. But the real fans, people who have always been music people, they still buy records, ‘cuz they get it. The people who grab a track from Kazaa, probably never would have bought the record anyways, so it’s not like you’re losing a sale. The problem is now, you have a whole generation who are being brought up to think that music is basically free. How are you going to convince all these kids to go buy records instead of just nabbing them? You can’t copy-protect it. There is always some hax0r in Norway who has more time on his hands than you do, who is going to crack your copy protection. The problem is extremely fundamental. I don’t know what to do about it. Get back to me on this one.
C.B. – Getting a bit away into some ‘less-serious’ issues… the upcoming Stromkern tour in 2002. What are your expectations for this tour, both at home and in Europe? Will this be a Stromken-only tour, with occasional collaboration with other bands, or will you be accompanied by another band?
Well, for the first chunk of the US tour, we’ll be out with Seabound. I’m not sure it’s the greatest match-up in the world, but they’re nice guys, they did a great remix for us, I know their manager, and blah blah blah, it seems like it could help us both a lot – some places are more keen on them than us and vice versa. Europe, don’t talk to me about Europe, I don’t know if/when that’s going to happen again. I hope next year. So after the first 2 1/2 weeks with Seabound we’ll be out on our own, possibly accompanied by another under appreciated American electro act who shall remain nameless ;-)
I think the tour will be good, I think we’ll play to good crowds, it seems like people want to see us and I think our live show has matured to the point where it’s interesting and we know how… we’re comfortable up there, now, so it’s not like “oh look, they’re pressing buttons for the first time”. Only time will tell, I suppose. Ask me in November sometime, “how did the tour go?” “They ate my guitar in Tulsa.”
C.B. – Touring involves some time investment and one might suppose that you don’t make a living from your music as Stromkern. How do you balance ‘real-life’ work with ‘music-work’ and add touring to the mix?
I’ll just quit a job, or tell them “hey guys, I’m gonna be gone for 2 months, like it or lump it” and let come what may. But I’ve been awfully lucky to have jobs where the people I work for understand I have this music thing, and they’re pretty easy to deal with about it. Right now I work for the University of Wisconsin’s computer science department, and they’re not quite as understanding, so we’ll see. Working on new material is getting harder and harder to do, to find the time and energy for that and balance the job at the same time. Something’s gotta give, so I’m going to see what I can do to ease the pain, so to speak.
C.B. – Having performed in both sides of the Atlantic and at some point having moved to Germany, how would you compare the U.S. and North European audiences for your music (commonly referred to as ‘scenes’)?
The Euro audiences weren’t so hot – with the exception of the audience at M’era Luna 2000 – but part of that was that we were playing to Velvet Acid Christ’s crowd and… well… they have their crowd, and we have ours, and I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of overlap there. But I think a lot of our fans are a lot like me – I mean, I’ll rarely, if ever, go up to someone in a band after a show, even a really excellent show, and go “hey man, great gig, let’s talk about something” – which lots of people feel compelled to do, for some reason. I don’t, and I don’t think most of the people who listen to Stromkern do. Not that that’s a bad thing, talking to bands, it’s just… I get the sense a lot of our fans are very introspective types. Then again, some of our fans are raving maniacs, so maybe I should just shut up while I’m ahead. To answer the question: the US audiences have been better, but since we’ve been playing regularly in the US, we’ve been better, so maybe the Euro folks will warm up to us if we take the new live line-up over there. Although part of it… I’ve always tried to perform as much live as possible, and that’s not something really valued in this “scene”, certainly not in Europe. It was never about rock’n’roll in Europe, it was about Depeche Mode and Simple Minds and Kraftwerk. So it’s all about show and how much makeup you’re wearing and gimmicks and so on, to an extent at least. And that stuff plays here as well, but if you get up and play a fucking rock show in the USA, that still connects with people on a very visceral level that I think goes over the heads of a lot of European crowds. I remember seeing the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion over there, in 98 or 99, and it was this awesome rocking machine of a show, and there were a few kids bouncing around, but I later discovered they were nearly all foreigners. The Germans were just standing there. It’s like, it’s fucking ROCK, man, get into it! I don’t know. Does that answer your question?
C.B. – After reading Smoove B’s “I’ll Treat You Right” column in ‘The Onion’ that you highlighted in your site, I feel compelled to ask: how seriously do you take yourself and your music-work in particular? How do you feel about fans that view musicians as a sort of unreachable inhuman divine-like entities?
I take our music very seriously, I take music in general seriously, maybe too seriously. But that doesn’t mean I can’t poke fun at it when I’m off-camera, so to speak. Maybe we’d be more successful if I’d have some über-spooky website and updated a LiveJournal every day about how I was about to go sacrifice a goat before engaging in a wild sex orgy, but I can’t be bothered, really. I’m not entirely sure who was responsible for the Smoove B pisstake. I think it was an ex-girlfriend, but I can’t be sure. It’s funny as hell, in any event. Even better is the Seecolinslash live acoustic cover of “Night Riders”. It’s still online, somewhere, I’m sure. Track it down, it’s worth it.
Musicians are just people. It does bother me, that people tend to think of successful musicians as these untouchable god figures. They’re just people, for chrissake. Most of them are dicks, some of them are nice, they all go to the bathroom and tend to lead far less interesting lives than anyone likes to believe. But, at the same time, that’s what the public wants. No one wants to get to know these bands – it would ruin the fantasy. That’s why we’re on a 6′ elevated stage, and you’re standing there, staring at us. It’s not so much because we want to be up there, but more because you want to be down below looking up. Being a rock star, to a rock star (or a wannabe rock star, I suppose) fulfils a simple narcissistic need in the rock star, but it fulfils a far greater need to many other people. I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but it sure seems to be the case.
C.B. – In closing, we’d like to thank you for this interview. Do you have any final words or requests? ;-)
Thanks for the interview!
— interview by Miguel de Sousa. Press photo by Eric Hall; Group photo by Dan Lavalley; live photos by Sam Atakra (www.atakra.com) and E. Katie Holm (www.ekatieholm.com), used with permission. (September 2002)