Currently headlining a three-week North American tour, Norway’s long-running synth pop/electro ensemble Apoptygma Berzerk are finally making their mainstream mark two decades after their inception by brainchild/frontman/songwriter Stephan Groth. Supporting their superior sixth studio album Rocket Science, which is more aggressive and guitar-driven than the group’s excellent, ultra-catchy fifth album You And Me Against The World, the quartet’s rising European fame is starting to spread over here. Not only are they drawing hundreds of fans per show in North America – serving up a good blend of their earlier, harder edged EBM style with their newer, more melodic material – their latest release features vocals from Dresden Doll singer/pianist Amanda Palmer (dueting with Groth on “Black Versus White”) and Good Charlotte guitarist/vocalist Benji Madden (lending background vox to “Apollo (Live On Your TV)” and “Weight of the World”).
The last couple of years have brought notable changes for Groth. His marriage ended. Then, after extensive recording and doing an intense European and Russian tour for Rocket Science — an album that references The Matrix films and George Orwell’s 1984 — his three other bandmates (of the last few years) decided they needed a break from Apop for personal and artistic reasons. He is now touring with his brother Jonas Groth on keyboards, The Anix’s Brandon Smith on guitars and Thomas Jakobsen on drums. And right at the beginning of the tour in D.C., the group had two laptops and three passports stolen. Watching Groth and the band greet fans before the tour’s second show in NYC, you’d never know they had had anything go wrong. They were friendly, upbeat and enthusiastic to mingle with fans.
For twenty minutes between their special fan meet and greet and acoustic performance and then a high-powered, audience pleasing set at New York’s Gramercy Theatre, Groth sat down with ADD to discuss the new album, tour, change in lyrical direction and why Norway is not the quality of life paradise that it is often portrayed as. The following conversation shows that Groth has a lot on his mind, and it is clear that his depth and intelligence have driven a musical machine that has explored wide sonic territory and covered everyone from Kim Wilde to Metallica.
How did Amanda Palmer and Benji Madden get involved with Rocket Science?
Benji and I have become really good friends over the years. He contacted me awhile back. I knew he was into Apop because he used to be into the old Goth scene. He told me he went to the first U.S. Apop tour, and since then his management contacted me, and we just kept in touch. They put out the “best of” remix album a year ago. I did some remixes for them, and he was just returning the favor. We were hanging out in Germany together, and I was working on the songs “Weight of the World” and “Apollo,” and I played them for him and asked if he could hang around and do some background vocals. So that’s how that worked. I’m very happy to have him on the album.
I love Dresden Dolls. I think they’re totally amazing, and she is also great solo.
She actually went to my high school. She graduated seven years after I did.
Oh, wow! I totally admire her. I think she’s a genius. She was touring for her solo album, which is great by the way, and is signed to Roadrunner in Europe. My manager was working with somebody there. The song “Black Versus White” was originally just recorded with my vocals, but my manager was insisting that it be a duet and needed another voice in there, and he said, “What about Amanda Palmer?” I really, really admire her, so if I approached her and she said no, I would have freaked out. That would’ve really killed me. So I said, “No, who else?” But behind my back he actually went and asked her management. Then all of a sudden I get an e-mail from her saying she heard the song and loved it and wanted to do the vocals. That was the best e-mail I ever got.
The new Apop album Rocket Science is not only less dancey and more rock ‘n’ roll, but the lyrics have shifted away from love and relationships and focused more on how crappy the world is right now, dealing with themes of conflict, war and intolerance. Where was your head at when you were making this album?
To be very, very honest, I got divorced. So no more love songs from now on! I’m kidding, but I’m sure that had some effect. I had a wake-up call, big-time. I think that’s where it started. Most of the other albums have been very much about me, about how I feel. It’s egoistic in a way, but not really egoistic because I’ve connected to many people that way because there are a lot of other people feeling the same things and relating to certain things. But this album is not really about me. It’s about the whole world and where all this is heading, especially America. But not only America, the whole world actually.
The opening song “Weight of the World” includes the lyric: “Pleased to meet you, we’re here to drop bombs on you”. Was that specifically about the Iraq war or something broader?
It’s about war in general. I’m from Norway, and we’re also involved in Afghanistan. I think all the wars that are being fought are not what we think they are. I don’t know if that’s a popular thing to talk about over here, but I don’t think the whole Iraq thing or the whole Afghanistan thing has anything to do with what they claim they are about.
I think the sentiment has changed over here. We’ve become more critical about our military operations, but in the beginning it was hard to speak out about what was going on in Afghanistan or Iraq.
It was exactly the same in Norway, and it’s so clear looking back now that they had to lie to people in order to get the support, so people would send their daughters and sons over there. A few years ago I got into the so-called conspiracy theories, and I’m sure there’s a lot of crap and false information in there, but there are definitely some of those so-called theories that are facts that can actually be proven. I’m not Alex Jones, even though I kind of like the guy and think he has a lot of good stuff that he is putting out there. I’m not saying that he’s right about everything. He’s a human being just like I am. We all make mistakes, and no one has the 100% truth in any matter. Regarding 9/11, what you can say for sure is that what the government is telling you is not 100% right. That has been proven. But is it as bad as Alex Jones is saying? I doubt it. But is there some truth in there? Absolutely.
On “Black Versus White,” you sing, “We all agree this ship is going down, and what goes around comes around”. Are you addressing the consequences of everything that’s been going on the last few years globally?
Yes, and not only the last few years. All of this is connected. The wars that were fought when my parents were born, like the Second World War and so on, have led up to all of this. It’s about all the wars. I think certain people, powers within the governments and within the ruling police, have planned this all out. I know that a lot of people are making big money on having wars.
Scandinavia is considered to have one of the highest qualities of life in the world. Is that true?
It’s what they say. It depends what you mean by life quality. I don’t know what they measure that in. I guess it is probably measured in per capita income, life standard, education and stuff like that. The reality is that Norway is in the top five richest countries in the world, but Oslo, the capital, is the heroin capital of Europe. It’s crazy. And my grandparents’ generation – who built Norway and built up everything after the war – is treated like crap. In hospitals we don’t even have been enough beds for them when they’re lying there about to die. There are old people in hospitals all over Norway, who’ve been fighting for the country and building it up so we can have the benefits that we have today, lying in beds out in the halls and in rooms here and there that are not even in part of the hospitals because we don’t have enough beds for them. We’re not treating our elderly well at all. And all the kids today have ADD and ADHD, and they’re pumping them full of drugs, so we’re going to have a generation of speed freaks in ten years. I don’t care how they measure all this life quality. I’m not proud [of these things], knowing we have so much money because of oil. I didn’t get any of it.
The middle class in America has pretty much been destroyed over the last few years. Is that the same in Norway?
No, not really, but I’m sure it’s coming. When we were touring in February, we had a band from L.A. called The Anix with us, and every day for the whole tour for a month I got stories from those guys – “My dad just lost his job.” “My mom just got laid off.” “I just got laid off.” Every day there was a new story about people losing their jobs, losing their apartments and being unable to afford their bills. Things that are happening in the U.S. right now will happen in Norway in five years. Regarding the middle class being destroyed, I’m very sure this is going to happen in Norway in a few years.
Do you think that’s because American corporate business practices are being exported over there?
We are a mini-America in a way. We have McDonald’s everywhere. We used to be the biggest Coke drinking country in the world, so Coca-Cola was actually testing out a lot of products in Norway. We are the most pizza eating country per capita. But it’s wonderful. I love Norway. I still live there. I’ve had opportunities to move to lots of countries over the years, but I’m still there. I have my family there. Just like America, it’s built on great values, it’s just a little out of hand at the moment. The intentions were good, and I think that there’s a possibility that we can get back there.
What has been your most enlightening moment on stage?
I stopped a fight once. We played a show in Germany, and all of a sudden these two skinhead guys started to fight over some girl or whatever. We were playing “Nonstop Violence,” so that was strange. It was a really nasty fight, and I actually jumped offstage [to stop it]. I was scared because these were huge guys, and I’m not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I went out there and they were shocked that all of a sudden I was standing out there in the audience. They stopped the fight and ended up giving each other hugs, then we went on with the show. I’m never going to forget that. That was cool.
So when you started this group 20 years ago, did you think you’d be here, headlining a North American tour?
I’ve been so lucky. I’m extremely privileged. I love New York, and I’m a huge Velvet Underground fan and the whole Factory and Andy Warhol thing, so for me to be here in this city is amazing. And I’m even getting paid for doing it. What more could you ask for? I am very privileged and extremely happy about it.
(Photographs 2 and 3, ©2009 Bryan Reesman.)