Chris Corner, founder of brief British down-tempo hitmakers Sneaker Pimps and currently the brainchild behind the theatrical, dark synth-rock infused pop of IAMX, moved to Berlin in 2003 after post-London stints in Japan and with a mafia-run film production company in Moscow. He’s now residing in an old GDR water station, with wild boars for neighbours, and has spent the better part of this year converting it into a home recording studio. Just back from a US tour, he tells EXBERLINER why Berlin is “the best city in the world.”
Why leave London?
At the time, I was running a ‘therapy marathon’ which was a personal five-year project I’d been on. I had been to Berlin a few times before and seen the dark and debauched side of the city, but I also saw a lot of hope and relaxation and the opportunity for new chances. I was going through a very self-indulgent and experimental phase – playing with a lot of different things and searching for something bigger. London had become too heavy on my shoulders and I used to fantasize about leaving. Berlin is special: It’s close, and quite similar to London and central to European activity. It’s the artist’s orphanage of the world. It looks after artists and people looking for an alternative way to live. I kind of got talked into coming to Berlin. I had a few acquaintances here. One of them is actually now my manager. So, I initially moved here to work on a French film project. I just thought, “Fuck it – I’ll move to Berlin to escape the trap of London.” That was back in 2003. I spent three months in a strange little flat in Prenzlauer Berg. Actually, it was a huge flat in comparison to the flats in London. Around that time, I had been thinking about moving to Tokyo, as I had previously produced bands out there. I found Tokyo so alien. I was always in awe of the place. But the psychological and physical aspects of Berlin just grew on me. I didn’t speak German back then so every day was like a little journey for me. I didn’t really know anybody and was quite lonely and when I wasn’t working I spent a lot of my time in the bars 8mm and Hausbar in Prenzlauer Berg. Berlin is like a little country in itself: I like the low-lit streets and being able to hide here. You can find solace in little places. I like the candle-lit bars in winter with their heavy velvet curtains keeping out the cold. And so many buildings are still covered in bullet holes. You’re living amidst history.
What are you favourite places in the city?
I love the fantasy of German Expressionism and Berlin in the 1920s. It’s a very decadent and open place and you can find anything here. I like the dirty little clubs, the underground bars. Two of my favourite places are both in Kreuzberg; the Kneipe Minibar and the restaurant Café Avril, which is great for fish and veggie food. I actually became a vegetarian when I moved to Berlin. I used to love the Oberbaumbrücke until the O2 sign was put up. I see this as a problem that is going to continue: Because Berlin is poor, more and more companies are coming in and investing. Berlin will become like Moscow. I worked out there for a while on films, but the production companies there were all tied up with the mafia. I was always paid in cash, which was great but pretty dodgy. In fact, when I finished my second project, I got out. I got scared. So this giant O2 sign, which now obstructs the beautiful view from the Oberbaumbrücke, reminds me of Moscow. I also love the lakes in Berlin, especially the lakes deep in the East like Müggelsee or Falkensee.
What made you move into an old, disused East German waterworks?
I found the place just over a year ago. I really needed a break and felt I needed to get away to clear my head, so I went on a little holiday in the country in East Berlin. I stayed with a family that I found through the Internet, brought my bike, got on a train and took off. The holiday was also to help me learn German. I stayed there for two weeks, cycled around the countryside, swam in the lakes, learnt German and wrote songs. One day, I was riding down a street and I passed an old GDR waterworks. It looked like a crazy Bauhaus, Art Deco fucked-up building. It looked ‘a bit wrong’ and I loved it. I went over to it and it had a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. I thought it would be really expensive but it wasn’t. It was really cheap and a perfect place for a studio. So I bought the place and started renovating at the start of January this year. It’s now habitable, but it’s definitely a life project. It’s difficult to be bored in Berlin! It took two weeks to pad it out and make it soundproof. There was a lot of DIY involved, but I’m really into it. I love the fact that you can open the windows, go into the garden and smell nature. Literally: I have wild boars as neighbours and they really stink. And they’re destructive too. They’ve dug up all the grass I put down. But I can’t be too angry; they live there, too.
Are you influenced by the music around you?
I’m actually a contemporary music retard! I really don’t listen to modern music. I listen to Chopin. I write when I’m feeling feel-y and intuitive and then I sit down and just write what comes. The production side of the music is when I actually think, that’s when I use the scientific side of my brain [Corner studied astrophysics and maths at university]. I can only write when it’s spontaneous. It’s the only opportunity I allow my brain to relax because I’m normally a person who thinks too much.
You recorded the last two IAMX albums on your own. What is it like working with a new band?
IAMX has been a live band for two years now. We came together at the end of recording The Alternative in October 2006. I actually poached Dean and Tom from my friend’s band and Janine was a friend of Dean’s. We came together in Friedrichshain, on Warschauer Straße, in a horrible basement studio, which is also where I recorded The Alternative. When I
was recording the CD, I tried to capture the organic intensity of the performances. I wanted to allow the music to breathe more than before. Lyrically, I think I have done that. The music has become a worldly vision rather than a clustered, claustrophobic vision. The other albums took on that angle, but this time I have let more come out of my head and expanded my thoughts. The new music is a freer way of saying what I want to. It’s also less intense. It’s fun playing the producer role as well, rather than just performing. You learn to deal with people, particularly musicians who can be very difficult. There’s a lot of ego and a lot of sensitivity you need to tame.
You’re about to tour the US, and you’re forever jumping from one European city to the next …
Touring is exhausting. When I’m on stage, my energy is very focused. The performances are stimulating and satisfying for me: I get everything I need in that one hour. It’s all about letting go, indulging my devils, freeing my spirit. It’s like a plateau that you get on, a relaxing and meditative high that comes from the performance and the adrenalin. It’s a plateau of energy management. Your energy is up but you’re tired and wired. You can’t just take a day off, it’s not enough, I need a week. Unless, of course, you go and get fucked-up after the shows – then it’s do-able. Right now, talking to you, it’s like I’m talking about someone else. I feel completely distanced from that person. When I’m on stage, I live out an extension of myself that I don’t live out in everyday life. It’s where my drive and soul comes from. That is me in my purest form – the way I’d like to be. I like that I have the opportunity to be both. These two different sides of me need each other and feed off each other.
How do you prepare yourself for the shows?
I try to stay fit and healthy and I drink a lot of vodka before a show. It oils the wheels. I also do Wing Chun Kung Fu, which helps me to jump around on stage.
You like dressing up and playing out different personas of yourself on stage.
We make all our own costumes. They are a combination of cabaret, theatre and military. I find the mix of military and theatre very interesting. The military is very much like the theatre in the way you have to become a certain person. We take the clothes, cut them up, destroy them and put them back together. It’s all about being free, dirty and trashy. It’s important that the destruction process is spontaneous and a bit fucked-up. But you need time to deconstruct. Tom, for example will bring in an H&M T-shirt, tear off a sleeve, mess it up and then it’s no longer an H&M T-shirt. We also work with colours – there has to be a colour scheme for IAMX. It allows me to be a dictator, like when I produce [laughs].
At the Motor im Grünen festival in Spandau last summer you just called the Berliners lazy and told them they all need a “stick up their arses.”
Yeah, I did [laughs]. Actually, the Londoners are lazy. They are so full of expectation. Berlin is not like that: You expect them to be motivated. But Germans don’t really let themselves go, especially in entertainment situations. They have an inherent set of rules they live by. And as for the sticks up their arses, well there were pockets of people really going for it and going crazy. But then it dies down again. It’s like they need permission to go wild and lose themselves in the music. You know sometimes when I’m driving around Berlin I see people getting personally insulted on the roads. They need to loosen the rules a little. It’s not like I did something wrong to you. There needs to be more flexibility.
There was a new addition to the band on stage. Where did the little hobbyhorse come from?
I found him on a street in Neukölln. He’d been chucked out so I took him in, dressed him up. He’s now solid and proud but bastardized in an IAMX kind of way. But I had to pick him up – he’s part of the gang now.
So Chris, how do you feel after the show?
Surprisingly happy. Fabulous, actually. On hindsight, the crowd was fabulous too, fabulous for a Berlin crowd. They’re always challenging. But I love it. It’s like being at home, bantering with them. It’s fabulous.