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Germany's Rammstein Sets U.S. (and Itself) on Fire

Pop Music: Band's ferocious anthems and onstage pyrotechnics earn it a following, even if Stateside fans don't understand the words.

October 09, 1998|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to pop music, Americans are a decidedly protectionist lot. Rarely does a song sung in a foreign tongue make any headway on the charts, and the few that have been successful tend to be novelties such as Nena's 1984 hit "99 Luftballoons" and "Volare," which was originally a smash in 1958 for Italian singer Domenico Modugno.

So how do you account for the Stateside success of Rammstein's "Du Hast," which has been a radio fixture since the early summer?

"Europeans have always liked American and English songs that they didn't necessarily understand," says Rammstein's guitarist Richard Kruspe, who will be with the band Friday at the Great Western Forum for the L.A. stop of Korn's Family Values tour.

"American kids just like to be into what's hip, whether it's big jeans or green hair," he adds. " 'Du Hast' is just fascinating to them because it makes a strong impression."

Indeed. With its militant drums and ferocious guitars, "Du Hast" (translation: "You Hate") is hardly lightweight pop piffle. In fact, the song, which features a chant-like repetition of the title phrase, has been likened by some critics to a neo-Nazi battle cry.

But Rammstein has no interest in creating hard-core agitprop for hatemongers. Natives of the former East Berlin, the band's six members all grew up under the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and have no interest in espousing any specific sociopolitical agenda.

"The biggest misunderstandings about our music have come from the Germans themselves," says Kruspe. "They called us right-wing Nazis because we came from East Berlin, and they didn't understand our cultural influences, which were primarily Russian. To West Germans, we are very odd."

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Rammstein's Teutonic metal machine music may not have struck a resonant chord with many of the band's countrymen, but it's been a different story in the U.S., where Rammstein's debut album, "Sehnsucht," has sold more than 200,000 copies--remarkable for a collection sung entirely in German.

Like many of the songs on "Sehnsucht," "Du Hast's" stark, elliptical lyrics paint a picture of emotional repression and domestic dysfunction set to processional drums and violent shards of guitar. Nothing is taboo--songs such as "Teir" and "Speil Mit Mir" unflinchingly delve into incest and sadomasochism. These are not your typical teen anthems, to be sure, but Kruspe insists that much of the band's subject matter is lost on most American kids who hear it.

"In 'Du Hast,' for example, it's kind of a word game," he explains. "Because 'hast' in German means both 'hate' and 'have.' It literally means you hate what you have and you have what you hate. Those who sing along to it don't really concentrate on the feeling of what we're trying to communicate."

Maybe that's because they're too busy ogling the band's over-the-top stage show, a combination of Grand Guignol theater, B-movie horror show, overblown arena-rock self-parody and lots of outrageous pyrotechnic tricks. In fact, fire is the main event at any Rammstein show. Crossbows shoot sparks, mike stands spontaneously combust, things get blown up for no apparent reason--even lead singer Til Lindemann sets himself aflame more than once during a typical performance.

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The band's fire-starting tendencies have no political or sociological significance--the band merely views it as a way for Lindemann to occupy himself onstage. And, guitarist Kruspe concedes, it's certainly a powerful attention-grabber.

"When Til started with the band, he was writing poems," he says. "He was not a singer, and had never performed onstage before. He didn't know what to do with his hands when he was performing. Using fire gives him something to do. Plus, fire is such a fascinating element for people--nothing is as strong as fire. We love to see the reactions in the faces of the audiences when we use it."

Kruspe, Lindemann and their bandmates--guitarist Paul Landers, bassist Oliver Riedel, drummer Christoph Schneider and keyboardist Flake Lorenz--were all denied the kind of blanket exposure to Western pop culture that their West German contemporaries enjoyed. As aspiring music fans growing up in East Berlin, they would obtain records piecemeal, either through the black market or from relatives with access to the West.

"It was very hard to get anything that wasn't allowed," says Kruspe. "Our grandparents were allowed to travel to the West because the government knew they wouldn't flee, so we would give them lists of records to buy, and they'd bring them back for us."

For Kruspe, that meant a lot of '80s industrial and "New Romantic" bands such as Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode and even White Zombie. The other members of Rammstein gravitated toward the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys and other early punk bands, albeit about 10 years after the fact.

After the wall came down in 1989, Kruspe and the other members were anxious to absorb and assimilate Western rock music, only to discover that their newfound freedom paradoxically led them back to their homeland.

"We were so anxious to go to places like California and learn the music," says Kruspe. "But then we realized that we couldn't do that kind of music--it was alien to our experience. We had to go back to our roots to do music well."

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Rammstein appears with Korn, Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit, Orgy and DJ C-Minus tonight at the Great Western Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, 7 p.m. $28.50. (310) 419-3100.

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