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Exit Popularity Contest: APOP’s Stephan Groth On Revisiting His Electronic Roots

Photo by Tarjei Krogh

Apoptygma Berzerk (APOP) was formed by Stephan Groth and Jon Erik Martinsen in 1989. Together they wrote several songs, including “Ashes To Ashes,” which was released in 1991 as a 12-inch single on the Norwegian label Tatra Productions. Their first two albums, “Soli Deo Gloria” and “7,” were a similar style of electropop and EBM. Their third, “Welcome To Earth,” avoided the dark themes of “7” for a lighter, less aggressive sound, and included a few experimental tracks. “Harmonizer” featured a softer, more synthpop direction, but their 2005 mainstream, indie rock album, “You And Me Against The World,” was a departure from the band’s traditional electronic synthpop and EBM roots, a rock exploration they continued into “Rocket Science.” Now, APOP’s upcoming compilation album “Exit Popularity Contest” promises to explore and reflect the depths of their ever-evolving sound.

Over the past several years, Stephan Groth has undertaken a journey back to where it all began as he explores his roots in electronic music. In 2016, APOP finally unleashed their new compilation album, “Exit Popularity Contest.” Exit Popularity Contest” reflects the band’s constant reinvention. Bringing instrumental music back into the spotlight, APOP founder Stephan Groth tapped into a rich seam of electronic pleasure, delivering a compilation of sound that will please a new generation and older aficionados alike. Always a musical chameleon, Groth pays homage to his roots through emulating the analogue soundscapes of innovators like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Klaus Schulze, and the driving motorik Krautrock rhythms of Neu!, Cluster and La Düsseldorf.

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Stephan Gorth to discuss his passion for music, revisiting his roots in electronic music, his evolution as an artist and much more!

You’ve carved out an impressive career in the music industry. I want to go back to your early years. How did music first come into your life?

I grew up in a family where music was all around. My father was a rock musician, blues singer, guitarist and songwriter. My mom was a DJ. I was surrounded by music all of the time. It affected me and I ended up not liking any of the music they played. I grew up with pop music like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones but ended up not liking any of that. I don’t know if that came from being rebellious or whatever! [laughs] After I grew up, I started to like their music and I understand it now but back then, I just wanted to do anything but what they liked. That is how I got into electronic music!

Which artists had a big impact on you and what you do as an artist?

I grew up in the ‘80s, so a lot of the stuff at the time, like the electronic music coming from Germany and British stuff. There were bands like Duran Duran, OMD, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk – that is stuff that I grew up with and was a very important component in me finding my own way and taste in music. In the ‘90s, I was also very much inspired by bands from America, bands like The Pixies, one of my all-time favorite bands. There was also The Velvet Underground which is very important for many musicians. I grew up with one leg in the electronic, new romantic, electro pop world and one leg in rock music, alternative, indie-pop music.

When did your focus on music go from a hobby to something you could do professionally?

Well, I took it quite seriously from the very start. As I mentioned, I grew up in a home where my father was a musician. He had a home studio there so I always had access to instruments. I would have synthesizers there, along with a 4-track tape recorder, guitars, effect pedals and microphones. I started to record stuff in his studio from the age of 13 or 14 years old. I was just doing it for fun and to make noise because I didn’t have any training or go to any music school to learn anything. I just kind of had to learn everything on my own. This was obviously before Google and YouTube, so I just had to learn it by myself! For me, it was a hobby and today it is still a hobby. I manage to make a living of it as well, which is great, but foremost it’s passion and a hobby. I love music and create sonic stuff, so I have been serious about it from the start!

Stephan Groth of Apoptygma Berzerk - Photo by Jan Ronald Stange
Stephan Groth of Apoptygma Berzerk – Photo by Jan Ronald Stange

You followed this passion and turned it into something wonderful. However, making it in music is no easy task. What are the keys to longevity in this day and age?

I have no idea. To me, it is about having fun. Things have to make sense for me and there has to be a purpose. If the sole purpose is to earn money, then you should probably find something else to do! I’m passionate about many things in life but I am the most passionate about music. I have to make music. I don’t know how to explain it. It was like I was put here to do music in a weird way. I would still make music if I didn’t make money from it. I think if you do something you are really passionate about, follow your heart and do stuff that you really love to do, then you can make it, no matter what your passion is. You’re probably not going to be a billionaire from it but, again, if that is the goal? What does it mean to be successful? I think I am very, very successful because to me success is not about becoming a millionaire. Success for me is to create albums and write music that means something to other people and to myself.

Where do you look for inspiration these days? Are you looking to any specific places?

Yeah. At the moment, electronic music is all over the place. There are so many new styles and directions that everything is a big mess. I started to look to my roots and I think a lot of people, at the moment, are doing just this. They are kind of confused because everything has gone totally wild, so we find ourselves going back to our roots. Everything goes in cycles, as with everything in life. Sometimes, you have to go back to figure out where things come from and to make sense of it all. That is what I have been doing for the last two or three years. I have been going back in time to find the building blocks of this kind of electronic music. It has taken me back to the early crowd rock sound from Germany and European music from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s.

Going back to those roots brought us to your latest album, “Exit Popularity Contest.” It is a little different from what we heard in the past. What inspired you to go in this direction?

I wanted to do something I had never done before. I wanted to do instrumental music and go back to my roots. I wanted to create something people did not expect me to do. I kind of wanted to have a break and start over again in a way. I was very disappointed at the time with how the record industry has been going lately with all the digital solutions. I am totally fine with downloads, streaming and digital audio, as long as it is a substitute for TV or radio. As a promotional, I totally get it and I’m totally cool with it. When it is a substitute for the real thing, like the vinyl album or the CD or whatever, then I am not fine with it because it is not the same thing. Streaming something and owning a piece of art is not the same. I set out on this mission, so to say, where I wanted to put out some real art — limited edition vinyls, hand-numbered and signed, in weird vinyl colors. I wanted to make limited editions to give something special to the fans and the many collectors of my music who want to have something exclusive and special. Normally, you will see bands give away a free MP3, like things that say, “Click here! Leave your email address and we will send you a free MP3 from the band.” That’s all nice and that’s all fine but the thing is your email address has way more worth than that MP3 ever will. It’s not really giving your fans anything, to be honest. It is collecting information and getting ahold of a lot of email addresses. That’s not giving anything to your fans. What I did was make an artwork that costs them 20 Euros or whatever it was but since this vinyl EP is so limited edition, only 500 copies were made, I can guarantee that record will never be worth less than what you paid for it. My idea was to have you invest with me and you can always sell this for more than what you paid for it, so it is an investment.


How does “Exit Popularity Contest,” as a concept, fit in with what you have been doing over the past two or three years?

What I found out over the last few years, which I think I knew the whole time, was that my art form is creating albums. Yeah, I’m a songwriter. Yeah, I’m a vocalist. I play live now and then and I’m a musician to a certain extent but what I really am is an album producer. The album is my canvas. The music, lyrics and artwork all go hand in hand. That is what I really wanted to do on this record — make an album where there was a concept, a story and something interesting. Whoever buys this record will have something to really get into. If you invest time in this record, there is a lot to gain from it. I wanted to make something retro. This is an album that is supposed to be consumed like we consumed music 20 or 30 years ago.

The artwork only features me wearing a mask. There is no photo of me without the mask. I made up this story about a guy, which is autobiographical in a way. It is based on elements of my life and experiences over the last many years. It’s about the guy you see in the mask who walks away. He reinvents himself and is starting life all over again. He is exiting the popularity contest, so to speak. That is what I did in a way. I got so bored with the way we live today, with social media, where everything is a huge popularity contest. Success in art is being measured in the amount of likes you get when you post this or that. To me, that is something that makes no sense at all and I don’t think it is healthy for anyone at all. I wanted to break free from that, start over, do something totally different and try to connect with what I think is healthy and, at least for me, the right thing to do. This album is not the end of something, it’s the start of a new era for me. I am starting over again in a way. I guess you could say it is a big reset button for me. I am starting over again by going back to my roots! When you read the whole story of the guy in the mask, which you will read inside the cover art, there are a lot of similarities between the two of us and what we have experienced in our lives. Basically, this guy finds out the way to deal with stuff is to create his own reality and his own rules. Instead of playing in someone else’s game, he decides to set up his own and sets it up to win. That is more or less what I discovered in my own life. The music industry is so difficult now. Especially for new bands. If you are a new act, it is very difficult. I am privileged that I have my back catalog and I already have a fan base. I have been thinking about new bands starting up now. How are you going to have your income? If you are a European band and you want to go play in the United States, just getting the work permits costs a fortune. Who is going to pay that? Who is going to pay for your work visas or plane tickets? There is probably going to be some solution down the road but I cannot see how you can make it unless you are lucky, as I have been, with a back catalog and a crowd who is already interested in what I am up to. They will buy some concert tickets, T-shirts or CDs.

You mentioned this album serving as a new beginning. Where do you see yourself headed in the future musically? Any idea on where you are headed?

No, not really. That is the beauty of art! I’m always going where the art is leading me and I really don’t know. I do know that I am on the right track. I have found something here and I’m going to develop it and do what I feel is right. I will do my very best to not give into the pressure and the whole popularity contest. I don’t think I am going to enter that again. I’m going to be very true to myself and true to the fans by doing things I am 100% happy with and approve of being good art, instead of having the extra thought of if something will be popular here or there. I think making art is the key. It goes back to the very first question you asked me today about what is the key to success and to stay in the game — I think you have to make good art. That is what it’s about. If making good art is not the main goal, then I can’t see how things can work.

Photo by Tarjei Krogh

What has been the biggest challenge of bringing this piece of art to life and to the masses?

It was a very long and difficult ride. I’ve been doing more or less everything on my own. I’ve, of course, had help from photographers, art designers and mastering engineers and so on but I have more or less been a part of every aspect of the album. Musically, I have done 99% of everything myself. I didn’t make any of the photography but I made demos and had tons of meetings with the photographer, Tarjei Krogh, to find a strong concept that would work. I was also out making photos with my iPhone making demos and showing them to him. So, I was a part of everything because I wanted this final product to be as much me as possible. I can understand that the album culture is not that popular these days because it is so much work. It’s insane! People who are not putting out records themselves, I don’t think understand how much work goes into producing an album. It’s madness! Especially if you look at the income part of it. I’ve had so many expenses and so much time spent on this and I am not going to make that money back. That is totally OK because, as I said, I’m not putting this out for financial gain. So much work, time and energy go into it. I haven’t even seen the final product at this point because it is still in production! I am very much looking forward to it and it’s going to be great to finally have that final product in my hands! I don’t regret anything! It has been hard work but I love it!

You created a tremendous body of work in your career. Looking back, how have you most evolved as an artist? Are there milestones in your development that stand out to you?

Some records have been more important than others. I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with quality. It’s more of a timing issue and the luck of being at the right place at the right time. Overall, I feel they all had a good quality and I’m proud of everything I have done. If I listen to my really old records now, a lot of it isn’t that good to be honest. I am still proud of it in a way because going through and making those first albums led me to where I am now, so it is still very important stuff. For first and second albums, we were in the studio and had no idea what we were doing! We were just having fun and doing some weird music that we thought was really cool even though we didn’t really know what was going on. You can hear that and it has its own charm in a way! [laughs] I’m glad that we did so! Putting out the first album is the easy part of a career. Putting out the second is still pretty easy. When you start having all of these expectations and people start expecting you to do music in a certain style or this or that, that is when it gets tricky. The first and second album is when you can play and just have fun and everything is cool.

Photo by Tarjei Krogh

What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist?

The best lesson that can be taken from my journey is to take art seriously. I grew up in a time where pop music had an entertainment value but you also had a lot of art in pop music. I think the perfect pop band for me would be a band who has 50% entertainment and 50% art; bands like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. Bands like that have the perfect ratio of entertainment and art. It’s a great mix. I think over the past 10 years, things have been heading more and more away from art and more toward the flashy entertainment value. Bling, bling and big gold chains. You know what I mean. The entertainment is getting more and more popular while the art is not being taken that seriously anymore. I think that is a really, really bad development. I was privileged to grow up in a time where pop music was very, very good. I feel today’s pop music is not that good. It could be that I am just getting older. I don’t know. Maybe today’s pop music is great but I just don’t get it. I don’t think that is the case but it could be. For me, it is very important to know and understand why I like certain things. Why do I like Jean-Michel Jarre? Why do I like Kraftwerk? I recently watched the new series on Netflix, “Stranger Things.” When I hear the music, the whole soundtrack is exactly what I have been doing for the last three years. I liked the series and thought it was a good story as well but it is important for me to know why I like what I hear. I like it because they have used some of the same building blocks of electronic music as I have been inspired by. For example, it is very easy to hear “Tangerine Dream” all over the “Stranger Things” soundtrack. I think a reason why they did this is because they have also been going back to their roots in electronic music because they want something more. In order to find out who you are, you need to know your roots. That goes for music but it also works in other aspects of life. I don’t know if that answers your question.

It definitely does. Thanks so much for your time today! Keep up the great work and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes you!

Awesome! Thank you very much, Jason!

Keep up on the latest from APOP by visiting their official website at www.theapboffice.com. “Exit Popularity Contest” in now available via The End Records on CD and cassette.