It’s been a busy year for Laibach, and there are no signs of them slowing down.
The Slovenian art collective are still promoting the film, Liberation Day, which tracks the band’s groundbreaking visit to Pyongyang in 2015. The documentary follows the band and curious guests, including Mute label boss Daniel Miller, as Laibach prepare to perform a set based on The Sound of Music in the North Korean capital. It’s a surrealistic take on a musical drama that was called “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat” when it was released. It’s also politically acceptable in the Democratic Republic, which received Laibach as China received Wham! thirty years earlier; i.e., with a heady mix of suspicion and goodwill.
While North Korea is constantly demonised in the Western press, Liberation Day shows a more complex reality. Koreans are jealous of their independence and live in the shadow of the Korean War. Their leaders are war heroes who fought against the Japanese and then the Americans, or their descendants. They live without contact with foreigners, and for most of them that is just fine: a proposal to play the song “We Will Go to Mount Paektu” is shot down by cultural officials because it would cause “complete mayhem” among the patriotic North Koreans. And yet, there is curiosity and a cooperative spirit amidst the bureaucracy.
In Pyongyang, both Laibach and the North Koreans have shows to put on, but neither goes exactly as planned: the standard tour is meant to be an “on the rails” visit to national monuments, but members of the entourage go exploring on their own; meanwhile, Laibach’s set list has to change on the fly as various cultural officials get involved. Western equipment has to be made to work in a theater build to socialist standards. Surly stage hands decide that they don’t need to take orders from Slovenian art-pranksters or their Norwegian interlocutor.
Although criticised by overly sensitive Western liberals for taking the journey, an appearance in Pyongyang couldn’t have been more Laibach. The North Koreans live their lives like everyone else, but have chosen to follow a path that is unlike everyone else’s. That doesn’t make them demons; it makes them square pegs. Let the country that hasn’t kidnapped film directors from its historical enemies and forced them to make features cast the first stone.
After the buzz around their North Korean show, Laibach returned to the studio to record Also sprach Zarathustra. Made for a theatrical production, Zarathustra will confound many of their fans with its neoclassical leanings, but it’s delightful. Humour and seriousness co-exist within Laibach, in a dialectical unity. Their adoption of totalitarian imagery and costumes has led some to mischaracterise the band’s politics, but the point of Laibach is that appearances can be deceiving. They are postmodern but also po-faced; court jesters but also protesters. Laibach defy labels; not only because they are defiant, but because they don’t stand still long enough for them to stick.
Laibach are on tour now.
Laibach play in London on 23 November 2018. Also sprach Zarathustra is available now on Mute Records. Liberation Day is available on iTunes.