A band? An art project? A secret cabal of political provocateurs? Going about their subversive business for more than four decades, everything that this unique Slovenian collective does comes as a surprise. Absolutely everything. Brace yourselves as we are granted an audience with the entity that is Laibach

In July 2015, a few weeks before they became the first-ever Western band to perform live in North Korea, Laibach were featured in a segment of John Oliver’s hugely popular HBO show, ‘Last Week Tonight’. After playing extracts from some of the group’s music videos, the piece cut back to the host, whose face bore a look of quizzical, mocking confusion – a fairly typical, yet unfairly ill-informed reaction.

Formed at the start of the 1980s in Trbovlje, a mining town in what was then Yugoslavia and is now central Slovenia, Laibach have long been a divisive proposition, whether in their name, their music, their appearance or their use of symbolism. They have been described as fascists, communists, a terrorist organisation threatening the very fabric of the Yugoslav experiment and, following the bloody conflict that atomised the country into seven parts in the early 1990s, as Slovenian national heroes. 

Theirs is a distinct, uncompromising and often impenetrable narrative, a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, representing a faction of a wider movement known as NSK – Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) – which encompasses everything from challenging theatre to fiery philosophy. Laibach’s music has many unique signifiers and anticipating what they might do next is nigh on impossible. 

In the last decade, as well as their historic concert in North Korea, they have performed at the hilltop castle that overlooks Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, and in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. They’ve played other gigs in Israel and China, provided the soundtrack to the 2012 sci-fi comedy film ‘Iron Sky’ and its 2019 sequel, and created the music for a 2017 theatrical production based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s ’Thus Spoke Zarathustra’. Their albums during this period include a reworking of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The Sound Of Music’ (yes, you read that right) and the erudite and accessible electro-rocker ‘Spectre’.

That Laibach’s latest album, ‘Wir Sind Das Volk (Ein Musical Aus Deutschland)’, accompanies a new musical based on the words of German dramatist, poet and essayist Heiner Müller should probably come as no surprise. The record begins with delicate piano motifs before navigating its way through coloratura vocals, intense orchestration, and harrowing texts about death and hopelessness. There’s a cover of Werner Richard Heymann’s ‘Das Lied Vom Einsamen Mädchen’ (‘The Song Of The Lonely Girl’), a track made popular by Nico and Martin Gore, and the album concludes with a blistering speech on German national identity by in-house NSK philosopher Peter Mlakar.

This, then, is the enduring enigma of Laibach. You can perhaps see why John Oliver was perplexed.

Photo: Jørund F Pedersen

Laibach don’t do traditional interviews. You don’t get an audience with the band. Instead, you get an email exchange with Laibach the collective entity. American avant-garde outfit The Residents, another unorthodox ensemble traversing the blurry frontier between art and music, employ a similar tactic, where all contact is through their spokesperson, Homer Flynn III.

Laibach’s Homer Flynn is Ivan Novak, the group’s principal songwriter and figurehead since their earliest days. Video footage shows him to be a personable, congenial and animated man, but he’s an exceptionally serious and deep-thinking leader. 

Also like The Residents, Laibach have not always been keen to reveal their identities. For a long time, the various members were known as “Vier Personen” (“Four People”), using the pseudonyms Eber, Saliger, Dachauer and Keller. A long list of musicians have come and gone, but the core duo of Ivan Novak and Milan Fras have remained constant throughout, as has the band’s idiosyncratic sound. Fras, whose incredible bass vocals and weird headgear have been talking points for 40 years, is their instantly identifiable frontman. 

To paraphrase their 1987 cover of Opus’ ‘Live Is Life’ – Laibach is Laibach. Simply and reassuringly. After four decades, we should be well past the point of explaining or rationalising their motivations, yet there somehow remains a quintessentially human need to decipher the group. We don’t value uncertainty. We don’t like things that can’t be neatly and conveniently explained. So the fact that, particularly in a world requiring unrelenting transparency, Laibach continue to give very little away is quite frustrating but almost honourable too.

‘Wir Sind Das Volk’ (‘We Are The People’) continues Laibach’s long-standing involvement with the theatre and their ongoing interest in the works of Heiner Müller, who they viewed as a kindred spirit in their formative years. 

“In 1984, when the group were basically officially forbidden in Yugoslavia, we were asked to compose the music for Heiner Müller’s ‘Quartet’ at the Slovenian National Theatre in Ljubljana,” say Laibach. “‘Quartet’ was based on Pierre Choderlos De Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ and this version was directed by Eduard Miler.

“We’d heard about Müller quite a lot in the early 1980s. He was regarded as one of the most important German and European playwrights since Bertolt Brecht. He was a significant contemporary intellectual figure. Many of his plays were featured in the repertoire of diverse theatres, especially the more radical ones in Yugoslavia.”

The music for ‘Wir Sind Das Volk’ is a reminder to Laibach that they never managed to work directly with Müller, who died in 1995. Apart from ‘Quartet’, the closest the group came was in 1987, when they crafted the score for a performance of Müller’s ‘Macbeth’, a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. 

“In February 1985, we met Müller in Berlin by coincidence, and it turned out that he was very enthusiastic about Laibach,” they recall. “He proposed that we collaborate on one of his upcoming theatre productions. Unfortunately, it did not happen, but we were told that he later used some of our music in another production he worked on.

“Müller began his career some two decades before us and in a different media, but we were both kind of regime outlaws. He was an outlaw in East Germany and Laibach were outlaws in Yugoslavia. The officials censored us and banned us, they wanted to abolish both of us, or at least to spit us out from our countries as dissidents, but we did not allow them this pleasure. We insisted on staying. In the end, they gave up and accepted us as their own – Müller in East Germany and us in Yugoslavia – although they were still not quite sure what to do with us.”

Laibach note that music and drama were the two main facets of the wide-reaching scope of Neue Slowenische Kunst when it was founded in 1984.

“NSK was formed in conjunction with the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre group,” they explain. “In 1986, we staged the theatrical spectacle ‘Baptism Below Triglav’ together, which presented a unique history of the Slovenian nation’s aspirations for independence, as well as the story of the historical – and especially theatrical – avant-garde.”

Around the same time, Laibach were invited to work with Scottish dancer and choreographer Michael Clark on a production called ‘No Fire Escape In Hell’, the band conjuring up what Artforum described as “a vision of Valhalla” via Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. They’ve collaborated with many other significant theatrical figures in the years since then, including Milo Rau and Sebastian Baumgarten.

“The theatre is an important aspect of and for Laibach,” they say. “Even the elements of life itself – birth, school, love, marriage, work, holidays, sports, religion, politics, celebrations, courts, war, death, funerals – we understand as a succession of carefully directed and performed theatrical scenes. This has also been confirmed to us by many film directors, such as Fellini, Chaplin and especially Jacques Tati. Performances and films try to concisely present the rituals of life, find and define their meaning, rationalise them and offer various possible starting points, interpretations, sequels and conclusions. In this respect, theatre and film are like platforms, software applications through which we can virtually capture our life.” 

Laibach liken the mainstream media’s obsession with reality television as proof that life is a sort of theatre.

“We experienced this during our visit to North Korea, where life is organised theatrically even more fanatically than elsewhere in the world,” they say. “Of course, we always saw Laibach and our performances from this perspective too – as a theatrical ritual, a directed reality show.”

Unlike ‘Quartet’ and ‘Macbeth’, ‘Wir Sind Das Volk’ is not a play, it’s a musical based around Heiner Müller’s texts. Müller wrote many pieces that adapted the works of others – Shakespeare and Brecht being two regular sources of inspiration – and would perhaps have appreciated the interpretative response to his own words. 

The group were invited to provide the music for ‘Wir Sind Das Volk’ by Anja Quickert, head of Internationale Heiner Müller Gesellschaft, in 2019. The production premiered at the Hebbel am Ufer theatre in Berlin in February 2020, but the pandemic cut short its run. It returned to the HAU for more dates last month. 

“Anja knows Müller’s opus very well,” note Laibach. “We discussed the content and the meaning of the whole project with her, but the choice of texts was basically hers. She also more or less directed the project. Our approach was quite flexible and we wanted to try some new working methods in terms of organising the sound. In a way, we followed Müller’s own strategy of cutting and rearranging the material, taking his words and putting them in another context, then rebooting it with music in order to drag the audience into it, or alienate them from it.

“Music unlocks the emotions and is therefore a great manipulative tool and a powerful propagandistic weapon.

And that’s why the combination of Heiner Müller, who saw theatre as a political institution, and Laibach, whose language is deliberately and consciously political – while at the same time avoiding daily politics – could be nothing else but a musical.”

‘Wir Sind Das Volk’ is ultimately a treatise on what it is – and what it was – to be German. It alternates between sober reflection and anger, before unflinchingly settling its all-encompassing gaze on the treatment of Germany’s Ausländer – the minorities, outsiders, foreigners and others who do not conform to a cruelly idealised national identity. Central to this is the notion of das Volk (the people), an expression that was inverted during the Third Reich from a folkloric, universal concept to one of nationalistic power. Although restored as a unifying salve on the demolition of the Berlin Wall, it seems to have been co-opted by the right wing again now.


So what do a group hailing from a town in Slovenia know about the German identity crisis? As it happens, quite a lot.

Let’s start with the name. Laibach was what the city of Ljubljana was called in the Middle Ages. But while the name could be seen as harking back to Slovenian history and tradition, it troubled the arbiters of Yugoslav culture. It ran contrary to the ideal of a united socialist Yugoslavia just at the point when, following the death of its authoritarian leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, the country was edging towards the bloody conflict which would redraw its borders all over again.

Even more controversial was the fact that Laibach was the German name for Ljubljana and it had been revived when Slovenia was annexed by the Nazis in 1941. Considering the combative nature of the band’s first records, to say nothing of their fondness for military uniforms and jackboots, it’s easy to see why the Yugoslav authorities believed them to be a threat.

German history and language still run deep in the veins of Laibach, who have always switched freely between German and English, with their native Slovenian tongue taking third place. Given their affection for German culture, it’s logical that Heiner Müller should act as something of an artistic beacon for them.

The band that we now know as Laibach emerged in Trbovlje as Salte Morale in 1978. They were formed by multi-disciplinary artist Dejan Knez, who renamed the group – at the instigation of his father, abstract painter Janez Knez – when Ivan Novak and Milan Fras joined in 1980. Knez left Laibach in 2006, although he continues to make music with 300.000 Verschiedene Krawalle, one of the many artists operating in the band’s orbit.

Laibach made headlines from the off. The anger and the tension of their music, inevitably inspired by the industrial noises of their home town and delivered through mechanical sounds and pounding drums, was hard to ignore. Much of it was produced on homemade gear. 

“We initially assembled our instruments only because we didn’t have the money and the ability to buy the right equipment,” they say, sounding like they’re issuing a weighty statement even when they are merely recalling a memory. “They were good only because they were so bad and poorly made. Nevertheless, they helped us to create the distinctive Laibach sound.”

Describing themselves as a “youth culture movement” rather than a band, Laibach established a fanbase among disenfranchised young Yugoslavs and the more broad-minded sectors of the arts community. They borrowed liberally from the suprematist imagery of the Ukrainian painter Kazimir Malevich, most notably using his heavy black crosses as an identifier for the group. Seen as a modern art hero at the start of the 20th century, Malevich became a casualty of Stalin’s disdain for perceived bourgeois paintings after the Second World War. 

Laibach’s fate was to be somewhat similar to that of Kazimir Malevich. The Yugoslav authorities were suspicious of their motivations, feelings aggravated by their confrontational sound and military visual aesthetic, as well as the pornographic video footage and smoke bombs they introduced to their live shows. An early multimedia performance with visual artists IRWIN, who were later also part of NSK, and the theatre company Rdecˇi Pilot was closed down because of its political messages. 

Their uneasy relationship with the powers-that-be led to the group being banned from using the name Laibach in Yugoslavia in 1983. They managed to work under the radar for a while, promoting themselves with anonymous posters brandished with Malevich’s crosses, but it quickly became clear that it was no longer possible for them to continue operating in their homeland.

As well as the crosses, Laibach have employed a range of other symbols over the decades and many of them have divided opinion. Deer (and deer horns) have regularly featured in their sleeve art, as has Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia. Such iconography has sometimes placed them on a precipice between celebrating the country’s alpine geography and a more problematic nationalistic idealism. Putting a picture of a kozolec – a traditional hayrack found throughout rural Slovenia – on the cover of their ‘Rekapitulacija 1980-1984’ retrospective compilation album was not without controversy, particularly given that founder member Tomaž Hostnik committed suicide by hanging himself from one of these structures in 1982. 

The band’s individual style still causes unease for some people. In one of the many memorable scenes of ’Liberation Day’, a documentary about their trip to North Korea, Laibach’s official handler, a nervous state employee called Mr Ri, is seen whispering to the director that Milan Fras needs to remove his ever-present cap because it makes him look like “a Nazi”. Elsewhere in the film, it’s revealed that the authorities who sanctioned the concert tracked through endless documents indicating that the group were likely to cause political problems while they were in the country.

Photo: Maya Nightingale

Unwelcome and frustrating negative attention at home in their formative years led Laibach to garner a more accepting audience elsewhere. Their mid-80s Occupied Europe tours saw them playing to receptive crowds across the continent. The band dressed in Yugoslav army uniforms for the shows, something familiar to them from their national service but somewhat shocking for most gig-goers.

After their 1985 tour, the group briefly settled in London, where they recorded their second album, ‘Nova Akropola’, with producer Rico Conning. During their time in the UK, they worked as film extras on Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’, the battle scenes of which were shot at a disused gasworks in London’s East End. 

“We would do all sorts of things if we ran out of money,” remember Laibach. “Our friends from the band Last Few Days told us that Stanley Kubrick was looking for extras and they asked us if we would join them. It was easy for us. We went to the set and we were given American uniforms, fake weapons and fresh haircuts. We had already served in the Yugoslav army, so we were used to military drills and wearing uniforms.

“We had to do some daily training and live in the army barracks, but the food was regular and the payment was very good. We ran up and down the range along with a few hundred other extras for about a month, with Commander Kubrick, his daughter, and the rest of his assistants giving us orders. It was a pleasure to be part of that film. We gave Kubrick a copy of ‘Nova Akropola’, which he accepted gratefully.” 

Laibach’s sound was gradually changing while they recorded ‘Nova Akropola’. Although still in thrall to the physicality of industrial music, the album illustrated what would become a consistent feature of the band’s output – a willingness to expand their borders in whatever direction they chose. In contrast with their performances only a couple of years earlier, which relied almost exclusively on squalls of saxophone and intense drumming, ‘Nova Akropola’ adopted symphonic stateliness and added electronic beats.

“We first understood Laibach as a kind of monolithic and monotonous industrial machine that produces repetitive militant sounds structured according to a zeitgeist,” they explain. “We soon realised that this monolithic quality can – and does – consist of a complete spectrum of colours and is therefore not just monochrome. This also applies to different styles and languages. In short, totalitarianism is – just as music is – all-encompassing. That is a simple philosophical fact.”

Every Laibach project can be seen as a discrete work of art. The only similarity between one enterprise and the next is the lack of similarity. But while each album or event is unique, it is nevertheless immediately recognisable as theirs, whether in its genre, scope, breadth, audacity, implausibility or complete refusal to be anticipated. To some, this may be exasperating. To the majority of the band’s fans, it is only to be expected. Sometimes they are surrealists, sometimes they flirt with pop, and sometimes they posit political viewpoints without suggesting any meaningful explanation of what they might represent.

“We live in an explicitly confusing and contradictory time, where truth has now truly become a lie and where freedom is only a voluntary slavery,” they put forward by way of explanation, such as it is. “It is not entirely clear whether there will be a war tomorrow or maybe we will have a sunny day and everything will be OK. Laibach are big enough for all these contradictions. If we didn’t practice different faces and styles, it would be very difficult to correspond to the current time.”

There’s certainly something in that. But Laibach’s unplaceable and unpredictable quality hasn’t just helped the band to integrate with whatever is happening around them. It’s enabled them to stay relevant too.

“Our listeners are already accustomed to the fact that Laibach would disappoint them if we didn’t disappoint them,” they suggest, with the email equivalent of a matter-of-fact shrug. “Our listeners know that the only real way to understand Laibach is by misunderstanding.”

This mindset is perhaps hard to reconcile with a group that has wryly covered not only Opus’ ‘Live Is Life’, but also records such as Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’, Status Quo’s ‘In The Army Now’ and Queen’s ‘One Vision’, the latter re-titled ‘Geburt Einer Nation’ (‘Birth Of A Nation’). It’s impossible to decide whether they’re taking the mickey or isolating some ultra-important message that somehow got lost in the original track. With Milan Fras’ deep vocals to the fore, it’s like trying to imagine your school disco if the songs had been hand-picked and re-recorded by the Stasi Male Voice Choir.

“We have repeatedly explained that Laibach practice only the deadly serious humour that cannot take a joke – and this is how a listener should approach it,” they insist. “We should not ignore the deadly serious Charlie Chaplin, who shot the satirically and terribly accurate comedy ‘The Great Dictator’ in 1940, where the core of the film is Chaplin’s shockingly serious speech in the role of a Jewish barber who plays Hitler in a comedy of confusion. 

“Chaplin sent this message along with the film to Hitler himself. As a Chaplin fan, he supposedly watched it at least twice, completely alone. Which, of course, further complicates the perception of this film. Chaplin later stated that he could not have made ‘The Great Dictator’ if he had known the true extent of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time. He was probably unaware that many internees in the camps had endured and survived because they had helped themselves a lot with Chaplin-esque Holocaust humour.”

Chaplin’s character in the movie, Adenoid “Ado” Hynkel, and his fascist counterpart Benzino Napaloni are both mentioned in the lyrics of ‘Tanz Mit Laibach’ (‘Dance With Laibach’), a highlight of the band’s 2003 EBM album ‘WAT’. The track sounds like a call to dance across the European Union in jackboots – until you detect the references to ‘The Great Dictator’ and realise you have fallen for their jokes again. Keep this in mind when approaching Laibach’s soundtracks to the ’Iron Sky’ sci-fi comedy films, which envisage a colony of Nazis living on the moon and developing spaceships to take over the world.

The Laibach project that perhaps best underlines their seriously humorous side is their comprehensive overhaul of The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ album, the record often described as showing the rifts that emerged between the Fab Four. The Vier Personen used the reputation of ‘Let It Be’ in an allegorical fashion. Released in 1988, at a time of increasing turbulence in Yugoslavia, their version of the album – full of rousing choirs, dramatic synths and industrial percussion – was intended as an analogue for the country’s impending collapse. 

The project was also in keeping with Laibach’s ongoing cynicism about European history in general. The theme, although typically never explicitly communicated as a criticism, was evocative of Czech author Milan Kundera’s observation that “all of this century’s greatest works of art can be understood as long meditations on the possible end of European humanity”. Bearing in mind that Peter Jackson’s ’Get Back’ documentary has recently revealed The Beatles were actually still a pretty tight creative unit during the making of ‘Let It Be’, it’s tempting to wonder if this knowledge might have changed Laibach’s approach to the album.

“Probably not,” they say. “In the early 1970s, it was already clear that the daring Yugoslav utopia of brotherhood and unity, of self-government and political non-alignment, would not last very long. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were cracking at the seams as well. The story of The Beatles’ break-up, which took place around the recording of ‘Let It Be’, together with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Che Guevara and Martin Luther King Jr, was therefore somehow a metaphor for the end of an era of anti-Cold War pop heroism, the end of the dream of the flower generation. It was the end of the revolutionary 1960s.

“On the political and economic map of Europe, what the Italians call the ‘Years of Lead’, which were marked by terrorism, started at the beginning of the 1970s. The Soviets and the Warsaw Pact allies had invaded Czechoslovakia, Tito was getting older, and the music scene turned into decadence and intolerable formalism, which was to some extent later interrupted only by punk and the independent record scene.”

Laibach’s ‘Let It Be’ was widely lauded by the music press and, however unlikely it might seem, even found its way into the hands of Paul McCartney himself. 

“That is what we were told,” say the band. “Apparently, he played our album, or maybe just selected songs, as the opening music to some of his shows. In the 1990s, his second wife, Heather Mills, was close to our very good friend, a ski instructor from our home town of Trbovlje. Heather didn’t know much about The Beatles then, but according to our friend, she was listening to Laibach’s ‘Let It Be’ on cassette while they were driving around Slovenia in a small car. Years later, when she was married to Paul McCartney, they visited Slovenia together and spent a few days here. Unfortunately, we were not around at that time, so we never met.”

Interviewed in the early 1980s about their motivations, Laibach offered their goal as “opening up a concrete possibility for the development of a politicised, systematically ideological art as a consequence of the influence of politics and ideology”.

There is a stylistic familiarity to this proclamation. Flick through Alex Danchev’s 2011 book ‘100 Artists’ Manifestos’ and a certain form of language emerges, with statements of intent that seem to mean something only to the author. The circularity of these manifestos is usually deliberate, leading the reader to feel as if they’re excluded, because they can’t get a handle on the theories. 

One manifesto not included by Danchev is that of Neue Slowenische Kunst. What united the various factions of NSK – from Laibach, the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre and IRWIN, to the likes of Retrovision (filmmakers) and New Collective Studios (graphic designers) – was a willingness to directly attack Yugoslav culture, often using the same extremist methods and totalitarian narratives that had shaped it. Not for nothing are Laibach on record as saying, “Art is a noble calling that requires fanaticism”. This was certainly the case with the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre, which doggedly followed a path towards self-destruction in the late 1980s. 

NSK have resolutely and repeatedly courted controversy, sometimes taking existing imagery and repurposing it against itself. The irony has frequently been missed, as happened with a poster entered into a competition for the 1987 Yugoslavian Youth Day. Intentionally timed for when the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre ceased operations, NSK took a Nazi propaganda painting and replaced an image of Hitler with one of Tito. The poster was banned when the authorities found out it was based on a Nazi picture – but only after it had won the competition.

The fact that NSK operate as a vast partnership across a range of artistic and philosophical disciplines is an ethos that also drives Laibach’s output. 

“Laibach is actually, by definition, a personified collaboration,” they offer. “Everything that we do requires the integration of different skills, with many people and machines. As early as 1982, we therefore wrote in our own manifesto that ‘Laibach works as a team (the collective spirit), according to the model of industrial production and totalitarianism, which means the individual does not speak – the organisation does’.

“We believe we practice some kind of elaborated Gesamtkunstwerk,” they continue. “Even when we collaborate with artists who are not part of the Laibach collective, we listen to them and try to adapt to their logic, and yet we remain Laibach in our essence. Here we are, in a sense, characteristically and tactically very close to Zelig from Woody Allen’s movie of the same name. The film is a symptomatic example of the practice of over-identification. Despite his chameleonism, Zelig always remains Zelig.”

At its heart, art is unknowable. All we can be sure of is what it provokes in us and how it makes us feel. 

Laibach’s work is more unknowable than most – deliberately unexplained, fundamentally unapologetic, and using political dogma and symbolism without revealing which side they’re on. Assuming they’re actually on any side, of course. Whether it’s pop melodies, electronic beats, industrial percussion, melodramatic orchestration or incisive interpretation, the group are as elusive and as essential today as they were when they first announced themselves to an unsuspecting Slovenian public in 1980. 

“We understand art as fanaticism that requires diplomacy – and whatever else it takes,” say Laibach in conclusion. “Life would be a real waste of time if we did not try to grasp it, because how else should we be aware of its value, if not through understanding its meaning? The highest, most complex and comprehensive form of defining life is art, including music. This is where all our motivation lies. Everything else – the presentation of projects, the release of new albums, the promotions, the concerts, the tours – all of these are a necessary ballast in the service of supporting the initial idea.” 

‘Wir Sind Das Volk (Ein Musical Aus Deutschland)’ is out on Mute. 

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