Laibach, which is Yugoslavia's most visible new music export, is a band with a mission and a doctrine, which, according to the group's members, is to "restore power to words that, through overuse, have long since lost their true meaning." Early on in Laibach's career, its electro-mechanical sound pulsations (accompanied by myriad manifestos) were viewed as surreal Gothic bent on some sort of subversive maneuvering against the state. As fate would have it, the European pop-music market wound up embracing Laibach's music, politics notwithstanding.
Laibach's latest efforts include remakes of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and the Beatles' Let It Be album. It isn't the first time the group has gone after Free World pop. Its cover versions of Queen's (that's right, Queen!) "One Vision" and Opus' insipid disco-excreta "Live Is Life" (a.k.a. "Life Is Life" via Laibach) gave it instant cult status. That other faint souls have incorporated cover versions to gain something approaching chart recognition is no secret; so, too, has Laibach thrived.
What separates Laibach from the likes of, say, Tiffany, is its process of thinking, one as subtle as a chain-mail glove smashing down on tried and true pop idioms.
That process led Laibach last year to cover "Sympathy for the Devil" not once, but six times, all completely different. (Covering the Stones' tune can be likened to Warhol's half-dozen different silk-screenings of Marilyn Monroe.) Not content with just covering the Stones, Laibach also went ahead and remade the entire Let It Be album (minus the title track).
An attempt to cover the Let It Be album might be greeted with hoots of derisive laughter, yet in the context of Laibach's past performances, which construct mammoth sepulchral edifices out of the most frugal pop origins, it all tends to make sense. Laibach's molar-turning reductivism of Let It Be pays attention to every nuance of the original while simultaneously replacing the eye-crinkling wholesomeness of the Flab Four with a full-on pounding that makes the bombing of Dresden look like a tea party. Such a perverse refitting of fundamental pop into a framework some might consider heretical nihilism is to be expected, according to Laibach, and, as death-mask salutes go, Lennon and McCartney are as deserving of it as anybody else in rock history.
In an effort to clarify the whys and wherefores of Laibach, the band is currently undertaking a tour of the U.S. In a recent phone conversation from New York, band member Ivan Novak, Laibach's spokesman, explained the reasoning behind the creation of Let It Be.
"We wanted to do a certain cultural statement about the media we are working in and getting a certain awareness out of it. It's a cultural statement about pop music generally and rock music specifically."
These guys like to make "statements." Originating out of Ljubljana in Slovenia (the northernmost province of Yugoslavia), Laibach is, in fact, one third of an alliance called Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art), a movement that includes the painting group Irwin and the Red Pilot theatre company. Laibach provides the political and ideological rationale for the movement. The Laibach Kunst itself is a ninety-page tract that wades hip-deep in theoretical dogma, which basically espouses politics as an art form.
When it is suggested that Laibach covered Let It Be out of historical significance, Novak heartily agrees. "Let It Be, the record, does have a certain significance in a historical sense of music," he says, "mainly because it's the worst record the Beatles did and the last one officially as ~~`the Beatles.' It's probably the record where the statement about the Beatles as an institution is the clearest by itself. Somehow, with this record they finished their own era and practically a new era had started for them. There was a certain awareness about the romantic side of rock, and on a metaphysical level, the record described that era of rock."
Besides zeroing in on the significance of Let It Be, Laibach is conscious of its own roots. The province that the band is from, Slovenia, has through the years been colonized by Germanic and Slavic tribes. Laibach is the name that was given to the region by Nazi occupation forces.
Novak explains that Laibach's interest in history stems from "certain aspects of history, how history tends to repeat itself, the way it is described, the way it is used, the way it could function differently when taken out of context, you know, because we belong to the very funny time of media reality which is fake, really, and yet on the other side it's not fake. This is a paradox that we try to show."
Laibach's particular concept of paradox is hard for some to fathom. On the one hand, Laibach flirts with quasi-jackboot imagery (uniforms, swastika sleeve graphics, grim posturing) and as a result, the press has tagged the band as outright fascist. Novak counters that "it is a pity so many journalists are so narrow-minded." He tries to correct this impression.
"I think it tells more about themselves than about us," says Novak. "Whoever sees us as Nazi or fascist has a vivid imagination. Not at all are we into Nazism or any of that bullshit. We happen to have a strong awareness of where we come from, which is a cross between four cultures and the political influences of Slovenia."
On the other hand, Laibach also espouses a goal of "strategic penetration of the pop market," a credo of capitalist proportions that one would think might irritate the Socialist Yugoslavian government. Novak chuckles at the thought. "We actually have very good relations with our government in Yugoslavia, absolutely no negative tendencies. There have been a few misunderstandings early on, largely unnecessary. We are governed by ourselves, and if a tension exists, it's a positive one."
Laibach's strategic penetration by way of cover versions might sound like a back-door method of indoctrination, but Novak denies it. "We treat our cover versions as originals," he says. "We don't think there is much formal similarity between what we are doing and the so-called historical originals.
"We are treating the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as historical material, taking it and renewing and reinterpreting it, repairing it for history."
Novak is also quick to point out "the lack of unoriginal music" in pop. "Actually," he says, "the most original concept that is coming out of pop music is the awareness of nonoriginality. In the average rock industry, with all these big popular arena groups, they are just taking certain shapes and models, not changing them very much and repeating them constantly. On the other side, there is music that is simply more aware, like rap and acid house, which I find very interesting."
After a while, it becomes apparent that Laibach's seriousness toward itself and music gives the impression the band's members are not exactly a partying bunch of funny guys. "Well, we won't deliberately escape from humor," says Novak in mock seriousness. "We think one of the most quality writers ever with a big sense of humor was Franz Kafka. Humor for us is not a blatant tool to use unwisely. Humor itself is a serious matter. Actually, the same word in our language, `humor,' it means `suicide.'"
A somber group intellectually though Laibach may be, the group still seems to possess a quirkiness that, when seen away from the intrusion of a reporter's microphone or a photographer's camera, would likely reveal a streak of slapstick absurdity. Is it really necessary for the audience to schlep around all this theoretical luggage? Novak breaks into a hearty belly laugh. "Ask someone else," he says between guffaws. "Some people might hear it without knowing all this. What if in the future people listen to the Beatles records and end up thinking they had discovered us?!"
Hmmm, good question, but a slim to nonexistent possibility. Even so, future music historians will remember Laibach not only for its idiosyncratic brand of music but for couching its views in a philosophical fashion uncommon to most rock groups. Novak hurriedly admonishes that "we aren't as big the philosophers as it might sound. It's just basic things we want to know, about ourselves and the rest of the world."
Laibach will perform at CRASH on Saturday, February 18. Show time is 9 p.m.
"Whoever sees us as Nazi or fascist has a vivid imagination."