An Interview with Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb

Kevin Keating
Nitzer Ebb
Nitzer Ebb
Nitzer Ebb will be playing not one, but two San Francisco shows this fall -- the first at Slim's on Friday, September 27th is already sold out, but you can still find tickets for their second show a few days later at the Great American Music Hall on Wednesday, October 2nd. The Great American show was just announced last week, so act fast and get tickets here.

For those not already familiar with Nitzer Ebb, the duo of Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris formed in England back in 1982 and were early trailblazers of electronic music and EBM -- electronic body music. Their 'big break' occurred when they opened for Depeche Mode's Music for the Masses tour in 1987 after releasing their debut album, That Total Age (iTunes). With that as a bit of a background on the band, we were fortunate enough to speak with both Douglas and Bon a few weeks prior to the start of their current tour and you can find our full interview below.

 Looking back over the nearly 40 years since you formed Nitzer Ebb, your peak creative time period was arguably between 1987-1991 where you released the four albums, That Total Age, Belief, Showtime & Ebbhead. 
Firstly, can you describe the lead-up to that time period? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you were school friends. What were you listening to back in the early 80’s that influenced your decision to experiment with the early formations of electronic music? 

Douglas J McCarthy: Yes we all met as skaters and went to the same high school. Because of the skating thing we were listening to some East and West coast punk and DEVO and had listened to or seen the ever present press fascination with the UK punks scene but were too young to really be a part of it, but even at 10 or 11 years old your start to get excited about things that seem to confront the norm and piss off the adults. By around 1980 and our early teens there was a few “post punk” bands that really seemed to capture the dystopian feel of what we could plainly see on the streets outside. It was the beginning of the the Thatcher years (she was elected Prime Minister in 1979) and there was a lot of fissures deliberately being made by her government and the establishment in general, especially the police and it is not an exaggeration to feel like we were living in a police state. So bands like PiL, Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Siouxsie and The Banshees (who had been around in one form or another didn’t get signed till ‘78) all seemed to be addressing the very things we were feeling as frustrated and angry teens. There were elements of electronic music to all those bands, some more than others and that also drew us to a desire for a more experimental sound. 

SFBAC: How did your demos/singles get into the hands of Mute Records? 

Douglas J McCarthy: We did what every other band did and mailed them to them and other labels a cassette. And, like every other band we got a lot of none response. Actually, Factory wrote a nice letter back politely saying “no thank you”. Eventually we decided to release our own records and by the third 12” Daniel Miller contacted us and wanted to sign. 

SFBAC: You were one of the early EBM/Industrial pioneers that weren’t signed to WaxTrax!… Was WaxTrax on your radar at that time and did you have any discussions with them before signing to Mute? Or was Mute always your primary target? 

Douglas J McCarthy: Yeah, we knew of them but we were slightly skeptical of being so far away from a label so Mute was a very comfortable fit. Also, saying no to Daniel Miller wasn’t ever discussed. We obviously got to know a lot of the bands that were being signed by them. But Mute and Daniel’s personality resonated with our approach and style way more. 

SFBAC: Was it Mute Records that introduced you to Depeche Mode, or did you know the band before joining the label? How did you meet and can you share any stories or memorable moments that you shared w/ DM during those years? 

Douglas J McCarthy: It was indeed. Almost immediately after signing to Mute we played a showcase gig with other new signings which included Big Black and Head of David, the Depeche boys were there but I don’t remember conversing with them. We thought we were too angry to be associated with them. Hahaha! Then around that time they released Music For The Masses and asked us to open on the European tour. We were very reluctant to do so, hilariously because we thought it would alienate our fans and ruin our profile. Daniel wouldn’t take no for an answer so we acquiesced and jumped on the tour. From my recollection Bon and myself watched the first show and were like, “oh. That’s what all this is supposed to be about”. We also became very close friends from that point on. 

SFBAC: What made the late 80’s and early 90’s seemingly such a creative time period for electronic/industrial music? What was happening culturally that supported the genre at that time? 

Douglas J McCarthy: Technology becoming more affordable made a massive difference. Kind of right up to the 80’s synths were only in the hands of wealthy bands and musicians unless you were nerdy and smart enough to build your own. Once you could get a punchy sounding synth with a built-in sequencer for a few hundred bucks the floodgates opened. That in turn led to a incredible animosity from “real” bands and the fissures became quite real. In no small measure there was a practical reason as well as aesthetic ones to start dressing in a menacing military style. 

SFBAC: From your perspective, are there any parallels to that time compared to today? 

Douglas J McCarthy: To a certain extent the never ending rise of Eurorack synthesis can be, but maybe more so the advent of incredible powerful but small hardware that quietly grew out of Eurorack gear has more parallels in my opinion. It’s certainly changed the way Nitzer Ebb can tour now. 

SFBAC: Is there a song in your catalog that you’re particularly proud of, and that never became a single or fan favorite? 

Douglas J McCarthy: Well, there’s the entirety of Big Hit (iTunes) for a start! 

SFBAC: If there’s one song you could go back and change/enhance, which one would it be? 

Douglas J McCarthy: I don’t think so. We worked exceptionally hard, and still do, on everything that has the NE mark on it and even if there are missteps I think the purity of what we were or are trying to get is indicative of the time and place. 

SFBAC: Technology has arguably made it’s greatest impact on electronic music through the years. Do you still find yourself using any vintage gear? Is there any gear that you can’t do without (besides a laptop?)

Bon Harris: We’ll use some vintage gear, although these days there are a lot of new instruments inspired by vintage pieces that are generally more flexible and reliable. The Roland System 100m has been a staple, as has the Korg MS10, over many years. Lately I’ve also been using the new Roland System 500 - an example of new being inspired by vintage. It is very close to the sound of the 100m, the workflow is the same, but it sure is easier to house and transport. A lot of Eurorack now fulfills many of the synth needs, Malekko, Audio Damage, Make Noise and Roland modules form the core of the setup there. Previously I would have used the Nord Modular alongside the Roland and Korg - the Nord Modular is an amazing synth. I’m using Bitwig as a DAW - a clip based, non linear workflow is essential. Bitwig sounds great and has a fantastic modulation system. For hardware synths, I like the Elektron boxes. I had a Monomachine early doors, now I have a Digitone and an Octatrack, both very solid and creative pieces. I’m also using iPad a lot. iOS is coming into it’s own with music apps - some unique things going on. Tablet is a very accessible format, I find myself writing music over a cup of coffee in the morning - making music that would otherwise not be made as a result of how accessible it is. I don’t think there is any gear that I can’t do without, but I do always have an iPad with me these days - even on bike rides. Apps from Audio Damage and Bram Bos, with hosts like AUM or Ape Matrix form the core of that setup. We are spoiled for choice these days though, pick any of the above items and you could happily make music all day.

SFBAC: Since Nitzer Ebb effectively when on hiatus after Big Hit, you’ve each had side projects such as Maven & Fixmer/McCarthy. Are either of you guys working on new material for either of those projects?

Douglas J McCarthy: Yes, myself and Terence regularly play live shows and release digital and/or vinyl. I do quite a lot of collaborations with other artists for mostly one off projects like the one I just did with Phil Kieran. Bon and myself have spent a significant amount of time working on Black Line the LA based band with Cyrusrex, Ken ‘Hiwatt’ Marshall and some others.

Bon Harris: No plans for new Maven material at this point. I am working on some assorted solo pieces that I get to as and when time permits. I’ve also been creating some animated short films, which will be finished shortly, also with original music as soundtrack. Other than that, the bulk of new musical activity is with Blackline. Writing new material and remixing existing tracks is keeping me busy.

SFBAC: Douglas, have you spoken with Alan Wilder recently, and is there a possibility of new Recoil material in the future?

Douglas J McCarthy: We talk from time to time but he’s really not been interested in doing much on that front the last few years.

SFBAC: Bon, besides Maven, you’ve done quite a bit of production work more recently. Is there any artist that you’ve worked with that stands out, and why?

Bon Harris: Both Billy Corgan and Marilyn Manson stand out. We worked together for extended periods, quite intensively. Both are extremely talented and driven artists. I learned a lot and have a huge amount of respect for both of them.

SFBAC: Back to NE, do you find it hard translating the studio material to the live environment?

Bon Harris: Not so much. We tend to write in a fairly simple way, so it often translates back quite well. There can be a lot of organization, but it’s usually fairly logical if a bit time consuming.

SFBAC: Are you planning (or currently working on) any new NE material? And if so, when can we expect it?

Bon Harris: No plans as yet for recordings. A lot of the concept for the current live show is the ability to re-interpret existing songs, and to improvise arrangements onstage spontaneously. So in that sense, we are developing new takes and new versions of the existing tracks.

SFBAC: Would you point to any person/people who’ve had an oversized influence on your career over the years?

Douglas J McCarthy: Daniel Miller and Flood are hands down the most influential on so many aspects of our career.

SFBAC: What made this the right time to get back together and tour? How did this tour come about?

Bon Harris: It’s down to instinct really. Working with Blackline was very enjoyable, and Doug and I enjoyed working together again, David and Simon had been developing their Stark project over the years into a very cool setup. Some puzzle pieces just began to present themselves really. Without being too morose, age is also a factor. None of us is getting any younger so it makes sense to enjoy it while everyone is still fit, healthy and able, and the popular demand is there.

SFBAC: Have your musical tastes changed over the years, and if so, how has that changed or impacted the way you go about song writing?

Douglas J McCarthy: Maybe not changed as such as understood the connections and appreciate the nuances of those connections materializing in seemingly very different genres.

SFBAC: Do you have any favorite memories/stories of times spent in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Douglas J McCarthy: I’ve always had a great affection for the SF Bay Area and visit fairly frequently even when not playing shows so there are lots of memorable moments. Folsom Street Fair has far too many but certainly leaves an impression. Opening for Depeche on the Violator Tour whilst playing at the Shoreline Amphitheater someone threw a size 18 tennis shoe at me and whilst I had spotted it and ducked Julian Beeston, our then drummer was less fortunate.

Bon Harris: Skates on Haight! Loved that store.

SFBAC: Well guys, thanks so much for making the time and we're looking forward to your two upcoming shows at Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall in a few weeks!

Douglas J McCarthy: Thank you! We are very much looking forward to it!

SFBAC: Best of luck on the new tour and hope to hear new material from you guys in the future!

Douglas J McCarthy: Cheers!

Bon Harris: Thank you.

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