An Exclusive Interview with Slovenia’s Laibach

LONDON–While the band name, Laibach, may not ring any proverbial bells for most people outside of the Western Balkans, the fact that the band played a much-hyped gig in North Korea this summer may sound familiar. In mid-August the Slovenian avant garde/industrial band played a concert in Pyongyang, making them the first ever Western musicians to rock the North Korean capital. Laibach (which is the German name for Ljubljana), which formed back in 1980 when Slovenia was still a part of communist Yugoslavia, performed at the city’s Ponghwa Theatre, showcasing several of their own songs, a few covers and, strangely, a few numbers from “The Sound of Music” as well. The musicians, whom the German band Rammstein say have been an influence, also did an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school. Dubbed the Liberation Day Tour, the performance marked the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japan. 

The concert was something in keeping with the band’s rebellious roots–they were considered to be a dissident group back in the days of Yugoslavia and were founding members of Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK)–a Germany phrase meaning “New Slovenian Art”–which was a controversial art collective created in Slovenia in 1984.

The band, based still in Ljubljana, do most of their interviews over email and do them as a collective. They answered a number of questions I posed to them, from what it was like performing in North Korea to whatever happened to NSK. EXCERPTS:

 The most obvious first question–how did the gig in North Korea come about?

The initial idea came a year ago from Norwegian artist and cultural activists Morten Traavik, who already established cultural relations with North Korea previously. We heard about his activities and got in touch with him through our network of supporters, asking if he could direct our video for the song “Whistleblowers” from our last album, “Spectre.”  Which he did and we got a great video that he then showed to authorities in Pyongyang, and that was a starting point for negotiations of Laibach performing in DPRK. Soon we received an official invitation from the North Korean Committee for Cultural Exchange. The rest is a history.

So what were your impressions?

Our first impressions of the country were – “this is just like we’ve expected, but it is somehow also completely different.”  North Korea is like what has been described in media, but it is absolutely much more than only that. It is a country everybody in the West loves to hate, but we found most of the tabloid stories about the DPRK utterly false. The country is poor and isolated, with [an] oppressive political system that is difficult to decipher, but people we [met] everywhere were fantastic and they seem to [possess] the precious wisdom that we (in the Western world) don’t. We couldn’t find any cynicism, sarcasm, irony, vulgarity and other “civilized characteristics” in their eyes and behaviour, but only sincere modesty, kindness, proudness and respect. They don’t seem to eat their own children, they don’t throw people to dogs and they don’t starve because of a lack of food, at least not anymore. American tourists in North Korea are, for instance, not hated at all, but welcomed and Koreans do not equate American people with US governmental policy. Entering North Korea is also not that difficult at all – as a matter of fact it is generally easier than entering US. Pyongyang, that has been completely bombed and erased during the Korean war (by the American warheads…) is today beautiful, clean, well-kept and colourful city with impressive architecture and parks. It definitely is a “pop art” city and it looks like as it has been entirely designed by Jeff Koons or one of his followers. Pyongyang is also probably the safest place in the world to walk around (if they let you walking around of course). North Koreans laugh, smile and joke a lot and people across the country are well and dignifying dressed. They learn foreign languages; children begin to [learn] English at the age of seven and we meet Koreans who spoke Chinese, Arabic, German, French, Spanish, etc. They produce excellent beer in Korea that is actually considered a soft drink and microbreweries there are popular. Unlike in US you can also drink beer freely from an open container outside on the street and smoke inside hotels and bars without a risk to be sent to prison. And for those who are into cannabis, North Korea is a very liberal place, where possession of cannabis is in fact essentially legal.

How was the crowd? How different were they from other crowds you have played for in other parts of Asia and the world?

It was totally different, the crowd was very cultural and probably it was the same crowd as the one visiting other major foreign cultural events, concerts, opera, theatre, etc. Koreans never heard such music before, so they didn’t really know what to think about it, but they reacted politely, applauding after every song, and in the end of the show they gave us standing ovations (maybe they were just happy that it is over; [the] Syrian ambassador certainly was – he didn’t like the show much – [and] commented that “it was too loud – almost like a torture.”  Choe Jong Hwan, an elder Korean visitor, gave a statement after the show: I didn’t know that such music existed in the World and now I know.

Why did you perform songs from “The Sound of Music”–seems like a weird choice for North Korea.

We wanted to perform something that would possibly make some sense to North Koreans. The majority of program was therefore based on our versions of songs from the  film (“Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Every Mountain” and “Sound of Music”), that a lot of Koreans know – “The Sound of Music” is one of the American films they are allowed to watch, they are using it to learn English with it and they also did their own Korean versions of these songs. And – after all – the story really fits into the North Korean situation and it can be understood affirmatively, but also subversively – very much depending on the point of view.

Laibach have been around for 35 years–what have you been doing to mark this milestone? Or is that not really something you celebrate? 

We try not to celebrate it, but others are reminding us all the time about it. Anyway – we did [a] European tour this year, we did [a] North-American tour and as a cherry on the top of the cake we did two shows in North Korea. That was quite enough celebrating.

How do you describe Laibach–as a band, as musicians, as contemporary artists, as filmmakers? Or all and none of those things? 

We describe ourselves as the engineers of human souls.

Rammstein have said what a big affect your music had on them as a band–does that mean a lot to you as a band to know that you have influenced other generations of musicians? 

We appreciate their affection; thanks to Rammstein we now know that Laibach could also be [a] commercially successful international project – if we wouldn’t be Laibach, of course.

What is the current state of NSK? Is it still in existence (or does it always exist, whether active or not) and how much contact is there between say, your band and the Slovenian artistic collective, IRWIN?

NSK State exists, but it is today a project of its own and we do not interfere in it. We helped to constitute it and we still support, but we let it function on its own way. As far as we are concerned, NSK state is now responsible for itself and its existence depends solely on its own citizens. On the other hand Neue Slowenische Kunst does not exist anymore since 1992. Some of the original groups are still active but we are not interconnected anymore.

What reflections do you have of NSK’s activities? Did people “get” what NSK is all about?

We have to underline once again that there is a big difference between the historic movement, called NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and the NSK state. Neue Slowenische Kunst was created in 1984, built around Laibach, when the band was officially forbidden in ex-Yugoslavia, and lasted till 1992. Its aim was to redefine the relation between art, popular culture, ideology and politics. Its basic organizational principle was collectivism, the method of work was retro-principle and the movement was described as Retroavantguarda. Between 1990 and 1992, with the emergency of new political, ideological and economic reorganization of Europe (the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the decline of the Eastern bloc, war in Yugoslavia and the birth of new national entities), NSK reinvented itself, changing from an organization into a State, but the State has completely differently substance than the historic NSK. The reason to create the State was to keep Utopia real. Neue Slowenische Kunst as an organized and coordinated movement established in Yugoslavia, slowly ceased to exist. It achieved much more than it was predicted to. Some people even say, that NSK ended Yugoslavia and created Slovenia, but that is of course slight exaggeration.

 In a story done in 2003, a British writer stated of Laibach: “Laibach’s method is extremely simple, effective and horribly open to misinterpretation. First of all, they absorb the mannerisms of the enemy, adopting all the seductive trappings and symbols of state power, and then they exaggerate everything to the edge of parody… Next they turn their focus to highly charged issues — the West’s fear of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the power games of the EU the analogies between Western democracy and Totalitarianism.”  Considering that this could have been written, as well, about the state of Europe in 2015, do you agree?

 Yes, this statement could easily be relevant also in Europe of today. We wrote several songs, dealing with immigrants and refugee situation and two of them are on 2003 WAT album (‘”Now You Will Pay” and “The Great Divide”).

Do you laugh at these interpretations of your music?

Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Some interpretations are very interested and enjoyable to read. They also help us to understand Laibach ourselves.

Why be ambiguous? Wouldn’t it be more subversive these days to be more direct?

We do not necessarily equate subversion with ambiguity and being more direct (and more authoritarian) would certainly fit Laibach well, but reality is too complex and paradoxical for such linear interpretation, especially within the narrative discourse. On the other hand accepting the fact that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not stop us from being pretty sure about a lot of things, or at least about those that are written in blood, sweat and tears. For these we can always find subversive ways to back them up with “action directe if necessary.