Efforts And Means
Jump Start Records, 2012
Austrian hardcore punks Astpai jack up heavy slabs of guitar with speeding snares and leering lyrics. They serve up a rare and biting musical take on Austrian politics. Green Left’s Mat Ward spoke to frontman Manfred Herzog, also known as Zock.
Austria has made the headlines here only rarely, most recently with the rise of The Freedom Party a few years ago and politicians such as Barbara Rosenkranz and extreme right stalwart Heinz-Christian Strache. How have such politics consolidated or strengthened as the financial crisis in Europe has deepened?
The Freedom Party (FPÖ) has experienced a massive boost of sympathy from the people all throughout the financial crisis. After right-wing populist politicians and conservative media found in Greece a perfect first scapegoat for the whole dilemma, the FPÖ immediately started putting up huge posters all over Austria, showing a stereotypical Greek male character lying in a Greek flag hammock while laughing and catching a bundle of 500 euro notes. The caption said: “Our money for our people.” The subtext meant: “The lazy Greeks are stealing all your money and wealth.” This poster in particular carried a bitter taste and memory of some of the 1940s anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda. The FPÖ is still using the same populist methods to promote its ideas. It gained wide support up until early this year, when The Freedom Party in Carinthia (FPK) - which works independently in co-operation with the FPÖ in Carinthia (southern Austria) - was dealt a big blow by losing over 25% of votes at the communal elections.
Your new song "Act / Claim" says: "Dead inside but in charge, what a mix / Mid-European politics / Ruining people you'll never know / Head in sand, on with the show / But your time will come, your days shall pass / Your ugly heads will roll at last / So enjoy your hatred while you can / I'll meet you at your bitter end." Please tell us about those lyrics.
I wrote this song out of an overpowering frustration with Austrian politics, in particular our Federal Minister of the Interior from 2008 to 2011, Maria Fekter. Fekter’s immigration and asylum policies included several deportations under dubious circumstances, which gained a lot of attention and protests from the political left and left-liberals. Critical media compared Fekter to Margaret Thatcher, and gave her the unofficial title of the “Iron Lady” of Austria. Realising and demonstrating against these deportations, I felt incredibly angry seeing Fekter’s self-righteous smile on TV and in the newspapers, claiming that she’s not a cold, heartless individual.
Your song "Give Us Today Our Daily Bread, Cars And Flatscreens" says: "Again they get together, different faces every time / Carrying the same banner and being equally narrow in their minds / While I'm stuck between the money - the money and disgust / The one thing barely paying bills, the other turning integrity into dust." Please tell us about that.
Between tours, I work at a funeral home in our hometown, Wiener Neustadt in Austria. It’s the only job around that fits a touring musician’s profile, granting me the freedom to work and leave whenever I am in town. Even though I was hoping to only have to spend a year at most working this incredibly numbing job, I’m now counting year five, as my physical condition doesn’t allow me to risk my health insurance by quitting for good. Working at funerals and dealing with every single aspect of these celebrations heavily underlined my atheist point of view. Religion, its institutions and the majority of people attending the funerals as mourners are in every way grotesque aspects of this modern age. The song simply points out how religion is based on nothing but shallow traditions and people consciously deciding to make use of these traditions, rather than expressing their true emotions over a big loss in their lives. At the same time, I’m singing about how I, as a part of a company financially depending on these events to happen, am feeling shameful about not having found a way or the courage to quit my job and therefore not making myself a part of an ongoing charade.
Hear Astpai's latest album, Efforts And Means...
Tell us about your song “Wastable Wires”, which says: "When dreams become a noise in the background, in the backyard of all the monstrous jails scraping the sky, covered by bright lights and glamorous banners, it'll be hard to keep on track, it'll be hard to keep in touch and to keep in mind, who banned us from ourselves."
“Wastable Wires” is about the importance of not losing your own identity to this rapidly growing, so-called civilisation that we call the First World. It’s now easier than ever to get completely stuck in a false reflection of yourself, questioning your potential in making an impact and therefore changing things around you. Modern technology and media can be very useful tools in our daily lives, but they can also turn people into mindless zombies that simply forget how it feels to be truly alive, have an opinion and most important: have a voice! This song is meant as a positive reminder that no one can make better decisions for your life than yourself.
Tell us about the meaning of your intriguingly-titled song "Carne(t)vores ATA".
I wrote “Carne(t)vores ATA” after a series of bad experiences at European borders. The title is a combination of the words “carnivores” and “Carnet ATA”. Carnet ATA is a transit document for transporting goods, personal belongings or - in our case - musical equipment across European borders without the intention of selling any of the stuff you’re carrying. Sounds all fine in theory. Practice has shown that, as with so many situations in life, doing everything right and according to the law is not always a successful way to reach goals, as ignorance and lack of education don’t exclude executives of the state such as police, border patrol or even worse: clerks and officials. We’ve experienced a good amount of arbitrariness, lies and injustice on our travels. But that’s almost not even worth mentioning when compared with the challenges that people from outside of the EU have to face every single day, fighting to improve their lives by either taking refuge from their war-mongering homeland or trying to keep up with the growth and basic services that they see across the lines drawn by politics, globalisation and finance.
The song "Rankers & Rotters" says: "We're the ones with the dirty fingernails, crawling to the surface, although we're destined to fail / We're the ones who scream right into the pauses / The unfamiliar faces with the unsexy causes." Please expand on that.
“Rankers & Rotters” was originally written and performed by a band from Philadelphia called The Curse. We chose to cover that song because The Curse haven’t ever made it to Europe and because it is a short and catchy “Fuck You” to the establishment. Up the punx [laughs].
Your song "Guts" addresses materialism with the words: “Fake desperation rising from distorted facts turning potential artists into gutless acts / Some false desire along with it - unaddressed, yet cut to fit the kids’ materialistic calls / Their mums and dads and cash withdrawals." Tell us about that.
“Guts” talks about how art is being more and more transformed into a sales model, a number at the stock market, a businessman’s playground. With the music industry in the shit, it’s hilarious to watch all the embarrassing and degrading concepts for popular music and video artists rise up and crash real hard shortly after. By saying “cut to fit the kids’ materialistic calls, their mums and dads and cash withdrawals”, I’m pointing out how a dying entertainment industry is pathetically holding on to the desires of teenagers, earning the big boss men the last few millions of their expiring careers.
One of your earliest songs, "Visibilify", exclaimed: “Is it fear of others’ cultures, because you've barely got your own? Your assumptions turned out as substitutes for the unknown / Seems like this system works for you / This is just one bittersweet pill to swallow / To let masses choke on it / I've made my own path to follow / But barriers follow footsteps everywhere I'm going." Please tell us what you were getting at.
It’s been almost eight years since I wrote that song and it’s still frighteningly up-to-date. Back in 2005, that song was an outcry of an 18-year-old that was fed up with the racism and fascism that’s still so deeply rooted in Austrian society. More than ever, political parties, brands, popular artists and the popular media are using the label “Traditional” to spread an imaginary feeling of origin, Austrian values and lifestyle. And still, more than ever, people seem to eat that shit right up. On March 12, it was 75 years since the majority of Austria ceremonially let Hitler’s Germany take over the country and government and therefore supported the Nazis’ inhuman and unbelievably cruel war. Austria, eternally labelling itself as the first victim of Hitler, still hasn’t properly faced and dealt with this crucial part in history. I’d be thrilled to see Austrian celebrities talk about this topic rather than about how proud and happy my friends and I should be about having the privilege of calling ourselves natives.
Tell us about a particular song of yours - any song - that you would like to draw attention to.
Amongst a lot of political topics, the song “Honest Or Sentimental” is about being grateful for having empowering and caring people in your community and life. We are incredibly grateful that we get the chance to travel around by playing music, and that there’s so much support, especially from our parents, who may not fully understand our intentions and goals in life, but still manage to keep a positive outlook while being incredibly supportive. Thank you very much for giving me the chance to speak about our art and our opinions. I appreciate it with all my heart.
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Watch the documentary on Astpai's Efforts And Means...