As a musician, an icon of female empowerment and a visual force, Japanese-American electronic musician Nic Endo is in a class of her own. Currently tearing up global stages as the female head of Berlin-based digital hardcore group Atari Teenage Riot, she’s been a main player on the international electronic and noise scenes since the 90s. Aside from her innovations as a producer and performer, she’s earned praise as a social crusader who maintains the pioneering feminist spirit of riot grrrls, whom she says “must define the avant-garde” in music. She’s also the spokesmodel for British beauty brand Illamasqua’s new fragrance, Freak – and, like Illamasqua’s cosmetics, the fragrance revels in contrarian attitudes, celebrating nightime mischief and the notion of experimental personal transformations.
Rolling Stone spoke with Endo as she tours across Europe and prepares for the release of Atari Teenage Riot’s new single, “The Collapse of History,” out January 23rd on Dim-Mak.
Have you done a style or beauty collaboration before? Were you hesitant?
It never came up before. Maybe because of the nature of what I do musically, which is regarded as very radical by most people. I am very careful about what I get involved in. That goes from the remixes I do, to the projects I take on, to the bands I play in. I think Illamasqua’s approach will change the way a lot of people look at make-up and how they can use it in a more creative way. If we are honest, then we should admit that we all look towards great looking actresses, models or artists, and then try to be like them – but we end up being a worse version of the original. Illamasqua’s idea is to completely forget about those role models, look at who you really are and which sides of your personality you want to bring out. I find this very radical and modern in its approach.
Your own makeup is extremely distinct. What do the characters on your face represent?
It is Japanese (“teiko”) and means “resistance.” I slightly altered the kanji signs, so they fit my face shape better. I use waterproof liquid eyeliner with a felt tip to draw the sign.
Who were some women musicians you feel have used their visual in a progressive and powerful way?
In my opinion, your visual appearance must extend your music; it must reflect your music. Björk has done this probably best over the past decades, while Lady Gaga did the exact opposite. She disguised the mediocrity of her music, which, to be fair, makes her sell more records than Björk. She wears these over-the-top outfits that, at the end of the day are mostly inspired by the avant-garde. It’s like she is flicking through the books, grabbing ideas without context. It sounds negative, but I don’t mean that. I prefer that over artists who dress themselves as if they were your neighbors. Another good example is Debbie Harry. Her face, her music, her whole character made her appearance so unique, while in theory she could have just been another “blonde” pop star. That is quite powerful because she stands out even decades later. Of course Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex was amazing. I am thinking about her early New Wave punk look, the way she posed; that worked well with artwork of those colored 7” vinyls and the album cover.
In a digital age, does strong art direction for an album visuals and videos still count?
I think so. Although, I find everything digital not as intense as it used to be. Photographs, for example: they have a lesser impact than a great print in a magazine. Same goes for experiencing music as an MP3 file, or videos on YouTube that we watch with the constant thought in our minds, “Can I click away now or should I watch it a bit longer?” I see more and more creative people being less motivated to make the best product they can because of that. Most pop music can only appear “new” because of the visual side of it. So, yes, it is still important, maybe more important than ever before. But I hope we will see a future in which we can experience it all richer again.
Does Atari Teenage Riot have a particular set of opinions to showcase in their style?
Yes, even before I joined the group in 1996. Some people think the band is some sort of cyber industrial band, which has nothing to do with the reality of Atari Teenage Riot. If you look at ATR photos from 1995, they look almost like the Velvet Underground. Just two years after, when [ATR founder and frontman] Alec Empire was wearing Fred Perry, they looked like British Ska bands, like The Specials. Then when I joined, every member started to stand out more individually. Alec Empire almost looked like Iggy Pop during his Berlin phase in the 80s, [former member] Carl Crack looked like he could have been a member of Wu-Tang Clan, [former member] Hanin Elias had this “Louise Brooks” silent movie star look, while I was the complete opposite – I loved that mix of Japanese face painting, Anime female superheroines, and the “Emma Peel” leather body suit. One idea Alec Empire had right from the start was that the band should not target an existing scene. They should bring together people from all kinds of scenes. Of course, that was reflected in the clothes they needed to wear to not fit in.
Do you personally follow fashion in a traditional sense?
I have it all on my radar, pretty much. There are many things in fashion that I find inspiring, also for my music. But that doesn’t mean that it dictates what I wear that season. We have seen many musicians getting quick attention by the media and music fans because they were wearing certain clothes or glasses or whatever. I am very aware of the fact that these trends wear off as fast as they come up. As an artist you don’t want to die in that process. The music world and the fashion world have one thing in common in our age: they are both getting more and more fragmented. What is “hip” in New York might be totally awkward in Berlin or in Tokyo. In fact, it might never become “hip” at all. When you play to an international crowd like I do, you need to make sure that you avoid those traps.
Does that same ideal apply to how you produce your music – avoiding any overt trends?
When you find a sound that makes you stand out from the rest, then it would be stupid to follow every new micro trend that dies soon after. In the electronic music scene there hasn’t been a major change. Okay, some might say now it was Dubstep. I disagree with that. This stuff is all an extension of the Nineties rave scene, a variation of it. I don’t mean this in a negative way. But it wasn’t like the Big Bang happened and then there was Dubstep. While with early Rave music, it was a huge shift from point A to B.
How important was it to evolve the actual production and sound of the music for Atari’s comeback record?
That was the fun and ironic part of making this album – that we wanted to stick to the dogma of programming everything on the Atari ST 1040 computer. That is such a big part of the ATR sound. If we would switch to let’s say, a Mac, and use Ableton as a software, then we would start sounding like bands who were influenced by ATR. It would be like giving Muddy Waters an Ibanez 7 string guitar or something. It is like returning to the basics of Rock & Roll. ATR’s sound is very, very physical and it outdoes any other electronic band right now in terms of sheer punch and assault to the senses. This time around, though, we focused more on songs, rather than having novelty sound effects on the album. It has worked to our advantage. When we played this huge show in Berlin last month, the new songs went down the best in the set. A lot of people in the crowd were there only because they heard the new record.
Many of your lyrics also touch upon individuality and social issues, which is somewhat rare these days.
A male journalist recently said to me that certain issues that I raised on this album were raised in a similar way in the past by other female artists, especially in the riot grrrl movement. I told him that I find pretty much everything that “male” groups talk about in their songs is old news to me. Why do I talk about stuff like human trafficking and forced prostitution, for example? Because these problems are far from being solved; instead they grow. As long as there is stuff like that going on, we artists have to write songs about it, in every generation. If you look at the women in my generation – Peaches, Kathleen Hanna, Beth Ditto, Karen O – they couldn’t all be more diverse and unique in their approach to music and lyrics.
• Random Notes, Rock’s Hottest Photos