Tanzkommando Untergang herald Europe’s new dark punk. Combining a guitar-driven deathrock sound with grim, black and white visuals normally associated with radical hardcore, the politically-minded Berlin band is very much of its milieu, and its moment.
Musically, TKU’s female vocals recall early Siouxsie and the Banshees, or even Penetration. The influences on the band’s ideology, however, clearly come from anarcho-punk like The Mob and Rubella Ballet, shades of whom can also be heard in the band’s unique sound.
Tanzkommando Untergang’s visual approach is more in line with political d-beat bands like Disclose or Disfear: grainy, black-and-white photos of Stalingrad in 1943, or Dresden in 1944. The imagery of war and real-life devastation is crucial to their aesthetic. Such iconographic European references should come as no surprise. They’re still relevant.
As far as the musical tradition TKU inherit, the groundwork was laid out by groups that appeared on the Godfathers of German Gothic compilation series on Sub Terranean Records some years back. This included original German postpunk bands like Cyan Revue, Malaria, Asmodi Bazaar, and later-era Chaos Z. The band’s approach may seem fairly back-to-basics, with its emphasis on eerie guitar riffs and human-powered, acoustic drums. However, the vocals and visual aesthetics of Tanzkommando make them stand out. The band’s punk background and attitude sets them apart from other bands in Germany’s gothic scene, a scene the band explains it does not always feel totally compatible with. “Too punk for goth, too goth for punk” – a common lament heard from a lot of the newer bands that have reclaimed the DIY and punk roots of deathrock.
In short, Tanzkommando Untergang are an exceptionally good band operating in the cultural milieu of new, punky deathrock that I’ve tried to chronicle in my recent musical journalism. An interest in this activity has also fueled my involvement with the No Doves Fly Here project in Austin, Texas. Although the bulk of this new, dark music has come from the Pacific Northwest of the US, and from bands with roots in the hardcore punk scene, artists like Tanzkommando Untergang in Germany and Dystopian Society in Italy prove that the development is not exclusive to North America.
The anarcho-tinged political views of a lot of these bands has had precedent. However, the degree to which that aspect has been coupled with the new deathrock sound is an exciting new development in music. Tanzkommando Untergang, though they recall both West Coast deathrock and early British gothic punk, are also worthy heirs to the regional, guitar-driven German postpunk phenomenon called “depro-punk,” shorthand for Germany’s tradition of “depressive punk.” Bands like Fliehende Sturme , EA80, and Serene Fall took the pessimistic vibe of Joy Division but kept the guitars loud and the synthesizers out of the equations (well, mostly!). There is some of that in Tanzkommando Untergang, too.
I interviewed TKU earlier this month. Their English is better than my German, so I’d like to thank them especially for being good sports and communicating with me in a foreign language!
Oliver: Who started Tanzkommando Untergang, and when? Who is in the band now, and what instruments do they play?
Sergej: The present line-up of the band is: me (Sergej – bass guitar and backing vocals,) Vini (drums,) Doedi (guitar,) and Marta (vocals.)
Marta: I was totally into having a goth-punk band and was looking for people who might be interested in joining it. I spoke with one guy (the only real deathrock fan that I knew and who was also playing in a goth-punk band, Rotten Western Kulture) – Andreas – and asked him if he would like to play some music together. So we jammed together with Sergej. Andreas was playing guitar and ended up becoming our guitarist. The three of us were still looking for a drummer. A friend of mine recommended Vini. We had our first proper rehearsal on June 2, 2011. We played our first gig on September 23 that same year. We played 4 shows and recorded our demo together with Andreas, and then he left the band. He told us he wasn’t satisfied with the direction we were taking. He was more into the experimental and electronic thing. Luckily, we didn’t have to search long for a new guitar player. One week after Andreas left the band, we had a rehearsal with Doedi. He was already supporting the band by organizing shows for us, and other things.
Oliver: First of all, how would you translate your name into English? Who came up with the name?
Sergej: When literally translated to English, Tanzkommando Untergang means “Dance Kommando Downfall”/”Dance-Unit Downfall.” It’s more like a play on words and doesn’t really have any deeper meaning. We were searching for a name for quite a long time. We all had different ideas, and it was hard to find a name that all of us would be happy with. We thought that “untergang” sounded pretty gloomy and depressing, while “Tanzkommando” is something associated with fun. So it’s a kind of contrast.
Oliver: After listening to your Bandcamp demo songs, I was really pleasantly surprised not only with the music, but with the socially conscientious lyrics, which are in English. “Pictures from the Past” seems like an anti-war song. Are the themes of war, failing to learn from the past, etc., the main themes of the songs of Tanzkommando Untergang? What messages do you hope people take from your lyrics?
Vini: For me, lyrics in punk bands aren’t that important. The themes are old and there is nothing new. If you want to say something with words, write a book.
Sergej: It’s sad to say but I don’t think people care nowadays about the message of the lyrics. The song “Pictures from the Past” is dealing with the very issue that people don’t care anymore. People are used to seeing burned out cities, corpses of children, etc., but it doesn’t touch anybody any more. Maybe it’s also a problem of mass media – how they are manipulating people with these images. It’s so strange that people can still be shocked by the famous picture of the Vietnamese girl burned with napalm but at the same time they don’t care when they see pictures of dead children in Afghanistan. On this point I totally disagree with Vini, because without the message there would be no DIY grassroots punk movement. It would be just another type of rock music. I’m trying to keep the balance between political and personal themes in the songs. Lyrics are as important to me as the music. I rate much higher bands that have something interesting to say.
Nowadays, music and image (tattoos, piercing, hairstyle, clothes) have been absorbed by the mainstream, so the only thing that still makes a difference between punk and pop music is the message. Even if it all has been said before, I still prefer clichéd political lyrics to clichéd pop songs. And maybe they sound clichéd to me, but for newcomers they may actually sound pretty fresh. There are some new bands whose lyrics present a fresher and more updated view about things that have been already spoken about. For me, it’s a bit like with demonstrations. I know that they don’t change a fucking thing, but it’s still better to participate in them and show the government that we disagree with them, rather than just stay inside and take everything as it goes.
Doedi: Some bands really bore me with clichéd stuff, and an attitude of “we are so left-wing and better than you.” I like our lyrics because they reflect on political and personal issues, but with a gloomy mood.
Oliver: If someone had never heard your music before, how would you describe it? Would you say you are a postpunk band, deathrock, goth-punk? What sort of band would you say you all were?
Vini: Maybe ’80s-style death punk, dark punk?
Marta: I think it’s quite hard to classify our music. We’re definitely playing too fast and too aggressive to be a postpunk band. We don’t use any deathrock imagery and don’t look deathrock enough to be
considered deathrock. I think we’re way too punk in our attitude, too. I would say that we’re playing dark punk. I think this term suits our music quite well. Sadly, the “postpunk” label has become too popular, and is used for a lot of bands that have nothing to do with postpunk, bands that are really more indie rock than postpunk. We try to avoid this term to describe our music.
Oliver: What are your favorite bands that you feel have had an influence on Tanzkommando Untergang? Listening to the music, it seems like I can hear the influences early Siouxsie and the Banshees, maybe bands like Hysteria, Madhouse, Red Scare…. Is this right? What bands comprise Tanzkommando Untergang’s main influences?
Marta: Bands that have influenced me include Siouxsie and the Banshees, Xmal Deutschland, Ausgang, Danse Society, Killing Joke, 1919… Well, the list is long.
Sergej: The bands that influenced me the most are Crass and Dead Kennedys. Nowadays for inspiration I listen a lot to 1919 and early Killing Joke. TKU is a mix of four different tastes. I always was more into anarcho-punk, Marta more into postpunk and cold wave, Vini likes to hit the drums as hard as possible, and Doedi is into melodic guitar stuff, I think.
Doedi: Killing Joke, Xmal Deutschland, and ADS. Also, Wipers and Sad Lovers and Giants, and many more.
Oliver: I noticed a “Death//Disco” flyer for Tanzkommando Untergang mentioned that some members of the band might be from Russia? Is TKU a primarily Berlin band or are there members from other countries besides Germany? Where is everyone from?
Marta: We all live in Berlin but not all of us are German. I’m from Poland and Sergej is from Lithuania. Sergej and I have Russian roots.
Oliver: If you had to choose three and ONLY three albums to take to a deserted island and have those for the rest of your life, what LPs would they be? (This has become a recent favorite question of mine to ask.)
Sergej: It’s a very difficult question. Really hard to choose just three LPs from hundreds of your favorite records. I would take the Stooges – their debut Lp, then Funhouse, and then Raw Power. All that I like about music is just there. But at the first moment I was thinking about Berurier Noir Viva Bertaga, Crass’ Christ the Album, and Abwärts ’ Amok/Koma.
Marta: It’s really hard to tell, but what first comes to my mind is The Cure’s Pornography, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine and Killing Joke’s Night Time. I would never get bored of those!
Vini: It’s too difficult. I can’t decide.
Oliver: I really like your song “The Walk” a lot. To me, it seems like the song could just be about a really creepy situation at night, walking home alone. With the female vocals, though, there are overtones of a kind of feeling of being afraid, as a woman, of an attacker, when walking through the city. Is this what you were going for….?
Sergej: “The Walk” and “Pogo Disaster” were actually some of the first lyrics I wrote for TKU, when we were still not sure which direction we were going or how serious we were going to be about it. So I tried to write a kind of standard deathrock song, one with a creepy feeling. (“Pogo Disaster” is just about weekend partying.) Later I started to write the way I always have before and it became more anarcho-punk oriented or simply more personal. “The Walk” is a song about walking in the wrong part of town, where it might be dangerous for you. Marta and I know these situations well. In Eastern Europe, if you look like a punk or an outsider, you really have to watch where you go. You might get beaten, stabbed, or robbed. That’s why we love Berlin’s Kreuzberg area so much. You can look however the fuck you want, without getting your head kicked in by rednecks.
Oliver: What are some of the better bands operating in the goth-punk or dark punk scene today? Are there many other bands like this Germany?
Marta: From the new postpunk/gothic scene I think I like Bellicose Minds the most. I also like bands like Lost Tribe, Spectres , Cemetery, and Dystopian Society. I know no bands from Germany that would play this kind of music. Maybe only Pinoreks, but they play more postpunk in an early Joy Division- style, so it’s neither goth-punk nor deathrock. But they are good, too.
Sergej: I like Belgrado a lot. We know them personally, too. We just played a great show with them in Berlin. I like all the bands that Marta mentioned, plus Dead Cult and Funeral Parade from Portland. Also, Still Life from Copenhagen is a good band and I hope they record a demo as soon as possible. Basically, all the bands from the so-called “deathrock revival” scene. Actually, you’re doing a great job, Oliver, because we got to know a lot of these bands from your articles!
Unfortunately, I think there are no German bands that can be labeled “goth-punk” right now. There are a bunch of people who look like goth-punks or deathrockers, but they are mostly into minimal wave. That’s been quite popular in Germany nowadays. These people are just showing up to DJ events to dance. Only a few of them go to live shows to see bands like us. We’re trying to create our own underground DIY scene by organizing gigs ourselves, both for our band and other bands we like. One year ago none of us would have believed that any goths or deathrockers would come to see a gig in a DIY venue, but now it’s actually happening.
Doedi: Belgrado also kicked my ass when I saw them live in Berlin. They are definitely one of my favorites — the gig with them was really cool! Maybe in time we’ll have more dark punk bands from Germany, but most musicians I know stick to hardcore/punk/crust/metal. If I didn’t know Marta and Sergej I don’t think I ‘d be playing guitar in a dark punk band now, to be honest. Although I did have an idea to start a darkwave band once, but never managed to make it.
Oliver: I’ve noticed there seems to be an uptick in bands playing anarcho-punk influenced gothic punk rock: bands like Blue Cross, Dekoder, Crimson Scarlet, Lost Tribe, Cemetery, etc. Do you all feel like you are a part of that scene internationally in any way, and are these bands you like or are aware of?
Sergej: It’s kind of funny that it’s mostly underground punks who are responsible for the revival of gothpunk/deathrock. We are not so well known internationally, but yes, I do feel like we are a spart of a growing scene. We’re doing our best to organize events, gigs, and such.
Vini: I like the music of those bands, but I don’t feel like I belong to any scene.
Doedi: We had really good feedback when we organized DIY-shows with postpunk/gothic/wave bands and minimal-synth disco. We had a bunch of goths, deathrockers, punks, and other freaks that enjoyed partying.
Oliver: What are your feelings on German Prime Minister Angela Merkel? And do you have any opinions on the financial crisis that is currently happening in Europe with the loans to Greece, etc.?
Sergej: My feelings toward politicians are expressed in our “Dr. Guillotine” song. The message is: off with their heads. I live like a reject of society. For 11 years I lived in one of the biggest squats in Europe, Koepi. I don’t pay taxes and I don’t have health insurance. I only work from time to time doing jobs on the black market and so on, so basically I don’t care about the crisis. It has no impact on me. On the other hand this is typical of capitalism — private banks make risks, fail, and then the state bails them out with public money.
Vini: I’ve no idea about such things. I don’t know why the financial system broke down and whether it’s possible to fix it by paying billions of Euros.
Oliver: Who chose the imagery and lettering for the band’s artwork on the demo and record release? It’s interesting to me because the imagery you use is the sort one would nowadays associate with a political hardcore band, not necessarily a gothic punk band. But your lyrics can be very political. Is there a reason you did not choose to go with the more stereotypical “spooky” artwork, but instead have World War II pictures and the like?
Sergej: I’m mainly responsible for the artwork. I look for images, and if everybody else in the band likes them, we use them. None of us is into horror movies, zombies, and vampires. We just use images that suit our lyrics best. Anyway, what can be darker or more depressing than war and destruction? Also, bands like Killing Joke, UK Decay, 1919, the Mob, and many more playing this type of music were using war imagery as well, so we don’t think it’s something that’s that unusual. We don’t really like the artificial side of deathrock. It’s too cartoonish. And as a huge Crass fan, I really wanted to use a Crass-style font. We basically use a modified form of it.
Marta: The thing is that we only like the “goth” sound, but we’re not really into the stereotypical gothic imagery. Zombies, fake blood, vampires, and such are not really our thing. It’s way too kitsch and silly for us. I don’t want our band to be associated with any of those things. That’s why we’re more into war imagery. At least war is real.
Doedi: I think the artwork really fits our music and Sergej does a good job with the imagery.
Oliver: What releases do you all have out so far and where can folks buy them?
Sergej: We recorded a seven song demo after three months of rehearsing. We wanted to upload some of our music to the Internet before our first gig so that people could get a clue as to what to expect. It was recorded live in something like four hours. I just added the lead guitar parts and Marta recorded more vocals in some of the songs. It’s quite raw in sound and was played a bit too fast, because we were nervous. Our friend Kostja mixed it afterwards and with the help of Nopasaran Records from Warsaw we released the demo on CD. We took five songs from it for our split LP with Wieże Fabryk (who are also one of our favorite bands.) That was accomplished with the cooperation of other bands and 3 DIY punk labels: Hasiok Records from Berlin, Nopasaran, and Scream Records, from Poland. If anyone would like to get our record they should check www.ruinaton.de because they are also cooperating with a lot of American DIY labels.
Oliver: Are you all playing any shows in the near future? Have you ever thought about playing North America?
Vini: Playing in the USA sounds really nice, but it’s quite expensive.
Sergej: We’ll play our next gig July 28 in Berlin at Koepi squat, with the Subhumans. We’re really looking forward to that. The Subhumans are also one of my favorite bands. In September or October we’re planning a small tour in Poland (in Warsaw we’ll play with Cult of Youth) and Germany, with Wieże Fabryk. We don’t plan to play North America in the near future. It’s too far away and too expensive to go there. Also, you need some kind of work permissions or something like that. There are still many places in Europe where we haven’t even played yet. So, first we’ll conquer Europe, and then we’ll think about the ‘States!