‘Before The Storm Hits’ is the new single by Amongst The Pigeons, the avian-inspired alias of producer Daniel Parsons, and the first evidence of his forthcoming fourth album. The track finds Parsons in collaborative mode, with vocals from Fast Trains (Tom Wells).
Over snaking electronics and turbulent (but never intrusive) rhythms, ‘Before The Storm Hits’ is a moment charged with latent energy and the portentous uncertainty of not quite knowing what’s about to hit you. Think back to what life was like in January, back when COVID-19 vaguely felt like someone else’s issue and that nagging feeling that maybe your confidence wasn’t actually justified.
Many-layered and working short, sharp ideas that appear quickly and disappear just as rapidly, ‘Before The Storm Hits’ has a sculpted sonic anxiety about it; a restless, edgy disposition befitting the subject matter. Wells’ vocal is, in contrast, delivered with quietly detached soulfulness, for the most part a calming contrast to Parson’s electronics in spite of observational lyrics that sound nightmarishly bleak.
In 2019, to my immense disappointment, the Front & Follow label decided to shut up shop. It looked like either a temporary cessation of activities or a complete end of a 12-year run that had seen the Manchester-based imprint issue an incredible run of adventurous sonic material from a diverse set of artists.
Fortunately, 2020’s lockdown presented the ideal opportunity to bring the label back, specifically for the Isolation And Rejection series of artist compilations. From the off, the premise was simple – Justin Watson, who runs the label, put out an open call for artists to send in tracks that had been rejected by other compilers. Isolation And Rejection became something of a home for the unwanted, overlooked and unloved. All proceeds from the sales of the digital albums go to The Brick in Wigan, a charity focussed, like Isolation And Rejection, on the homeless.
In keeping with the previous three editions of the series, the tracks presented on the penultimate instalment are far from mere
offcuts or poor quality knock-offs. Volume 4 collects together twenty-four tracks from established, well-known artists like Kepier Widow, Howlround, Rupert Lally and Pulselovers – none of whom, frankly, should ever find their music on a compiler’s cutting room floor. These artists nestle evenly alongside material from less well-known individuals, creating a sense of even-handedness that is a credit to Watson and his label. That he selected an acoustic guitar strumfest – MJ Hibbett’s ‘Rocking Out But Quietly’ – as the album’s centrepiece is downright audacious amid the anxious, squalling, buzzing, droning and quietly ethereal electronics elsewhere, but then again Front & Follow were always defiantly atypical in their release schedules.
So here you get the woozy, hypnotic structures of Stellarays’ ‘Butterfly Control Tower’, all delicate melodies and an electro-shoegazery disposition; the nod in the direction of Cabaret Voltaire on Function Automat’s resolute ‘Data Data’; Earthborn Vision’s haunting, edgy electro pulses on ‘Effects Of Isolation’; Graham Reznick’s processed cello and choral vocal textures melding with stirring electronics on the beautiful ‘The Visit’; Kepier Widow’s brooding ‘Perfect Latency’. Elsewhere, Rupert Lally immerses himself in the same ambient sonic foreshore that inspired his Marine Life album with the pastoral ’It Learns From Its Mistakes’ and Lammergeiers delivers a psychedelic stew of amorphous, shapeshifting processed blues guitar riffs and grainy textures set to motorik rhythms on ‘Ephemeris’.
My personal favourite here comes from Joe Evans’ Runningonair. His ‘Cocktail Hour’ is a breezy slice of gentle exotica, all tranquil beats, discrete acid squelches, blurry shapes, vibes and jazzy piano, just perfect for mixing a Mai-Tai or three in the comfort of the Tiki bar you fashioned up because you had nothing else to do in lockdown. Cheers.
Isolation & Rejection Volume 4 is released September 25 2020 by Front & Follow.
For reasons that I don’t fully understand, for a significant proportion of lockdown I found myself drawn to the sea. Initially this was a strange feeling: in my mind’s eye I imagined the tranquillity of sunsets over rippling waves, the coolness of ocean spray and the scent of water in constant motion, but I was also reminded of how stressful I would find trips to the beach as a child – the embarrassment of changing into and out of swimming shorts under a towel, the uncomfortable feeling of sand between my toes and a sense of intense boredom that manifested itself, conservatively, seventeen minutes into a day by the sea. Nevertheless, the idea of the sea won out, and as soon as lockdown eased slightly, I took myself to the Cornish coast, to where I now find myself temporarily relocated.
Swiss-based electronic artist Rupert Lally’s latest album, Marine Life, also concerns itself with the sea, perhaps representing an emotive, wistful nod in the direction of his childhood growing up in Brighton. Across six deeply ambient pieces, Lally evokes both the calm quietude and intense volatility of the water. Taking together processed, degraded samples of orchestras and overlaying those with choral samples and plaintive synth accents, Lally has assembled a suite of sounds that drift gently between the acoustic and the electronic.
Pieces like ‘Deceptively Calm’ or ‘Shimmering Waves’ have a muted drama, an evolving pattern of beatific drones and constant cycles of minor crescendos smothered in a sort of hypnotic, though-provoking serenity. Like the ocean, what appears still on the surface might hide a restless, dangerous turbulence that prevails beneath; Lally’s work on Marine Life is sensitive to both, simultaneously carrying a reflectiveness but also a respect for the water and its latent, unpredictable power, best exemplified by a sequence of fluctuating discordancies on the title track.
A sense of danger floats to the choppy surface on ‘High Speed Crossing’ and the submerged pulse of ‘Diving Bell’, the former progressing on a submerged motorik rhythm that sounds like the close-up recording of a boat engine, and the latter on an unswerving sweeping sound reminiscent of sonar. These two pieces seem to symbolise, for me, mankind’s fragile relationship with the water and its untameable nature. I also found myself pondering how our continual disrespect for the natural order of the oceans have jeopardised the delicate ecosystem that it represents, feeling anxious about what overfishing, oil spills, engine emissions and plastic waste have done to those who call it home.
I found myself listening to Marine Life with the sound of seagulls chattering outside the Velux windows in the space I have commandeered for writing and reflection while I find myself here in Cornwall. It was a moment of natural, unexpected symbiosis that felt like it was completely in tune with the powerfully introspective yet elegiac tonalities of Lally’s latest work.
Marine Life by Rupert Lally is released September 21 2020 by Glass Reservoir in a limited edition of 50 CDs.
Rival Consoles released their seventh album, Articulation, at the end of July. The album continued Ryan Lee West’s deep explorations of electronic music, combining the recognisable rhythms and dramatic gestures of dance music, but filtering them through concepts that owed a debt to the natural world and modern classical music through graphic scores inspired by György Ligeti.
Further. spoke to Ryan about the album and his idiosyncratic approach to composition, the emotional potential of synthesisers and writing for strings.
It seems like you tore up your own compositional rulebook with this album, particularly in the use of something akin to a graphic score. Was that a conscious effort to challenge yourself? How did the visual score influence how you organised the tracks? Was it a freeing experience?
It was mainly a way to problem solve and to daydream possibilities. For example, say I have several pieces of music that are stuck. Perhaps they reach a point where I am bored of what I have tried to move them toward. I would sketch various structures and then try to recreate them. The beauty is that because it isn’t a science, simply drawing anything makes you re-consider things in a refreshed way.
My main issue is that because the computer is so quick and infinite at what it can do, I feel my creative choices are steered a lot – that the ideas don’t come from me, and that I am just randomly stumbling through some forest trying to grab onto things. This can produce great unexpected results of course, but for the most part I guess, I am sceptical about whether it is me or the computer that is making music.
In the process of sketching music structures and then trying to recreate them, it helps remove the influence of the computer and is a way to just be playful in a more simplistic way.
I also feel that electronic music in particular has a deep connection with graphic score like this, because electronic music is generally abstract, it feels perfect that the graphic score is a way to understand it.
The press release for the track ‘Vibrations On A String’ talks about you trying to ‘mimic the physical world with synths’ – placed in context next to the use of a different way of structuring the tracks, it sounds like you’re almost trying to rally against what me might call the traditions of electronic music. Why is that? Where’s that coming from do you think? Do you feel trapped by electronic music convention somehow?
I feel I am always doubting the authenticity of my ideas in electronic music. It’s easy to make something loud, multi-layered, chaotic or complex, but I find it extremely hard to create simple things that mean something to me, and I am kinda drawn to do this thing that is difficult. I think by trying to mimic nature is one way to help do this. As I grew up a guitarist, I’ve noticed that I am often making synths behave like post rock / shoegaze guitar parts at times. It’s not intentional, so I guess it’s more of an unconscious thing.
‘Sudden Awareness Of Now’ begins with birdsong, which is something that I’ve become acutely more aware of since lockdown began. To me, birds sound like tiny synth improvisations. Your notes on that track seem to reflect back this need to escape – from what? Are you a naturally restless creator?
Yeah, I think most makers are though. I mean I do subscribe to that cliché of escapism: I want music to escape into, or a film to escape into. When you are transported somewhere it is magical, so a part of me desires to do that with my own music, but of course it is sickly to force this, so I am trying to find moments of it that appear amongst my constant music making.
I’ve quoted this before for my Persona album, but there is this amazing video on YouTube of Legowelt demoing a synthesiser, and out of nowhere he just casually says “synthesizers are like translators for unknown human emotions”! I really love that, and I think there is some truth to it. So in Sudden Awareness of Now, I think there is a sense of nostalgia – hope, bittersweet regret, escape – but it’s not really fully certain; there is some unknown quality, and this is probably the strength of music, that you can describe feelings without the precision of language but with just as much power.
You’ve performed with the London Contemporary Orchestra – what was it like to fuse together electronic music with classical convention? It feels like that experience might have had an impact on your approach to your music, giving the tracks on Articulation a sort of depth and austerity that feels familiar from the world of classical music. Where do you think you might go next with Rival Consoles?
I think a lot of the parts of my music are influenced by strings, so there is some immediate crossover from synths into strings and strings into synths.
I have explored writing for strings a lot over the last ten years (though with a computer string library) although I did learn to play the violin to a pretty bad standard some years ago also! I do find a natural connection when writing for strings, especially as my main focus in my music is harmony, so it is something I definitely would like to explore more, and perhaps create a release with the LCO.
Further. favourite Matthew Barton, a singer-songwriter originally from Rugby, released his debut EP Queen Of England yesterday.
Containing introspective, tender reflections on masculinity, isolation and a diaristic paean to the passing of his hero Prince, Queen Of England acts like a fully-realised window into Matthew’s vivid songwriting style. Stripped back, for the most part, to his voice and guitar, the tracks here are fragile yet evocative story-like vignettes.
We spoke to Matthew about the seven tracks on the EP and the different ideas and personal inspirations that they individually represent.
In the spring I was thinking about playing live, and I wanted a rhythmic, fun, rocking song to play. That was when ‘Cruising’ began. But then of course we went into lockdown and all live shows were cancelled.
As with many of my songs, it started on acoustic and then I recorded it on electric. It’s got a tiny bit of harmonica in there and a bit of slide and harmonium. I did the vocals in the garage and a plane flew overhead during the take, but I kept it in. I hope I do get to play it live one day.
QUEEN OF ENGLAND
‘Queen of England’ was written before 2020 happened, but it seems like it was a harbinger of things to come. It is a bleak picture, but we are living in these times for real. The harmonium playing ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ as the coda is, in my mind’s eye, a Salvation Army band at the end of the world. It’s like my song version of the This Is Fine meme.
An early version, without the guitar and autoharp, appeared on Z Tapes’ Covid compilation Hope For European Bedrooms in the Spring.
LADY JANE DAYS
During lockdown, Knifepunch Records, who are putting out the cassette version of Queen Of England, assembled a compilation of new songs – Songs To Stay Home To – the challenge being that each song had to be 100% written and recorded in quarantine. I was drawn to the autoharp and ‘Lady Jane Days’ emerged.
I was thinking about Lady Jane Grey in the Tower Of London and the nature of isolation. I recorded the vocals in my car, trying to avoid the sounds of dogs barking leaking into the recording.
The seeds of ‘Barb’ came when I was travelling in Hong Kong. I was walking along and some of the lyrics began to form; these are the moments I’m thankful to have a phone that I can just sing into, or write a note.
I was thinking about self-image, identity, ideals of masculinity… what is with the phrase “man up”” What about “woman up”?
I was in San Francisco on the day Prince died, with my friend Michael. Prince’s music filled the streets that day. ‘Alcatraz’ was the last song to come together for this EP, and the missing piece of the puzzle that I didn’t know was missing.
Another song, ‘Mamie’, was originally in its place, which you can find that on the cassette version, but there was something in ‘Alcatraz’ that demanded it be included. Just like ‘Lady Jane Days’ didn’t need to be longer, it never occurred to me to edit ‘Alcatraz’ from its seven minutes. I just let it be what it is.
Some of my favourite music has that Phil Spector sound – all 60s girl groups, Brill Building pop. I love the simplicity and the directness. ‘Judy Garland’ is my tip of the hat to that; it’s got my version of the Ronettes triple drum beat and a deconstructed surf guitar. It’s also my friend Alice’s favourite, and a fun one to play. The kitchen wall is often my Carnegie Hall, when I’m drying the dishes.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG
‘When I Was Young’ the oldest of these seven songs, and it resurfaced for me in the past year. It felt like there was something about the passing of time and this kind of nostalgic, wistful feeling. It was also the first one I finished.
I had a lot of fun layering the guitars and harmonies. I learned harmonies from listening to Fleetwood Mac records and Laura Nyro. If you haven’t got a harmony group, be your own, I say.
Queen Of England by Matthew Barton was released August 28 2020. A special cassette version is available through Knifepunch Records.
On August 21 Further. favourites Novelty Island follow up their debut EP with Suddenly On Sea, a concept suite of five tracks based around a trip – you can use that word with whatever meaning you like – to an imaginary seaside town. With a nod squarely in the direction of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Suddenly On Sea is full of vivid imagery, strange characters, quirky buildings and a brilliantly diverse set of instrumentation – organs, samples of old 78s, burbling electronics and tinny beats.
Whereas Welcome To Novelty Island set its sights on distant planets, Suddenly On Sea is concerned with a bonkers alternative vision of seaside England, all hankies tied atop sunburned scalps, faded ballrooms and dimpled beer mugs. Today, Further. is delighted to bring you the first play of the fourth single from the EP, the jangly, oompah-bassed, lysergic recollections of ‘Thoughts Of The Fish Quay’, a sort of dream-like shanty to crayoned oceans and boats made out of tissue paper. Probably.
“We’ve reached the fourth track from the EP,” explains Novelty Island’s Tom McConnell. ”It’s like the summer holiday that no one can have this year. You’ve checked in at the ‘Jaunty View’ hotel, gone for a ballroom dance to hit-of-the-day, ‘Francesca Relax’, and sank a few pints at ‘The Desperately Strange’. Now you’ve been out a bit too long. The early hours have turned to daylight. People are going to work, but you’re walking further and further out to sea.”
So there you have it. It’s The Beatles meets Reggie Perrin, set at an LSD-ravaged Butlins resort where Vic and Bob are the entertainers – and it rocks, in its own inimitably wonky way. Listen to ‘Thoughts Of The Fish Quay’ below.
Tom Wheatley’s Round Trip is described as “an imaginary journey for double bass”.
For those who haven’t seen Wheatley performing, this potentially requires some explanation. For those who have, the journey through the limitless sonorities, textures and possibilities that he can manifest from his instrument will be all too familiar – scratches, hissing sounds, the sound of strings, scraped and subjected to intense pressure, noises that you cannot reconcile with an instrument that ordinarily seems to lend itself to ponderous, languid playing.
Wheatley is a master of using the whole instrument in his exploration of sound. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is sacred. Anything that can produce a sound is legitimate and accepted. I saw him perform once with such intensity that by the end the horsehair of his bow was detached, flailing, pathetic and thwarted; he had exploited the strings so close to the very limits of their elasticity that I thought they might snap; his performance was so physical and determined that if he had smashed the wood body against the gallery wall and played among the splinters it would have felt utterly logical.
You can imagine some of that technique being used to coax the myriad sounds that can be heard across Round Trip – frantic / frenetic; quiet / intricate; creaking / whining; droning / murky. At around the twenty-two minute mark, Wheatley creates a squall of bleats and stuttering sounds that feel like they must have been played on a sax, its performer bent double and pushing every last breath through the horn with wild abandon. I was not remotely surprised to be told that it was still Wheatley and his bass.
On Round Trip, he is accompanied by nothing more than location sounds. Birds tweet, chirp and trill melodically; pedestrians chatter; a lone dog barks; traffic can be heard far off in the distance; a delivery truck reverses nearby. Tune into that and you hear the cacophony of daily existence; a dramatic, disquieting, vibrant tapestry of ceaseless, beautiful noise. Heard in that context, Wheatley’s investigative playing here acts as an allegory for life’s quintessential, wonderful restlessness.
Round Trip by Tom Wheatley is released July 29 2020 by TAKUROKU. TAKUROKU is the download imprint of Café Oto in Dalston, London. Buy Round Trip at the TAKUROKU website here.
“I taught myself how to play guitar when I was 15, started writing songs at 18, and now I’m 20 and there are few things I love more than music,” says Samina Saifee, a Detroit-born, New York-based singer-songwriter.
Samina has just released her debut single, the delicate and moving ‘Prom’. “It’s is a love letter to the summer after high school,” she explains. “It’s funny to me that everyone knows prom as a night that never quite lives up to our dreams. Finishing this song was my way of closing a chapter in my life even though it’s been years since that night, and even though it didn’t live up to my dreams.”
‘Prom’ is built up from gentle, ebbing layers of guitar, piano and discrete electronics, presented with a gauzy ethereality as if looking back on an especially poignant memory. There is a plaintive, wistful, dejected quality to Samina’s beatific lyrics, full of expectation and ultimately disappointment at going home alone. “Can’t tell you how small the world feels when you’re seventeen,” is the song’s final line, left hanging in the empty school halls of Samina’s hopes and dreams as she looks back on the naivete of youth.
Prom by Samina was released July 25 2020. Listen at Spotify.
Centre Excuse is a duo of Teddy Lewis (vocals, synths, guitars) and Alex Rush (percussion, synths, backing vocals), school friends weaned on a diet of electronic music and modern punk in their home county of Rutland.
The pair have just released their debut album, the exceptional Favourite Soul. Further. spoke to Teddy for an exclusive look at the journey that he and Alex have taken, and how Favourite Soul came together.
I’ve known Alex since I was eight.
I always feel guilty about this story, but it is funny and sums up the sensibilities of a kid in year three at school. It was the start of summer and my family had just moved to our village of Empingham, Rutland from a stint in Tunbridge Wells. I was chucked in the deep-end: for the last two weeks of school before the summer holidays started, I went to Empingham’s village primary school for a taster and to prepare me for the next school year, just so that I would know some people.
I ended up having a pretty bad time with some bullying, but in the last few days Alex turned up out of nowhere. It was the lunchtime break and the bell rang to tell us all to line up and head back into class. By this point I knew who was in my class (there was only about ten of us) and Alex stood in front of me in the line. Alex is now a tower of a man, funnily enough, but he was one of the smaller kids for most of our school years and at this point I didn’t recognise him and thought he was younger. I said something along the lines of, “You’re not in year three – this is the year three line,” and he turned round looked up at me and said, “Yes I am – I’m new”.
From that point on we really gelled on everything – music, football, video games and generally just hanging out all the time having mad countryside adventures. Looking back we really appreciate those adventures as something very special to have experienced while growing up.
Rutland is beautiful, and I miss living there every day.
It’s basically countryside, fields, small villages, cows and a reservoir called Rutland Water. Growing up, we’d all go up to the village playing field to play big games of football and we’d ride our skateboards to the reservoir at the end of the village to hang out. Rutland Water was the real playground for us. We’d also bike down to the next reservoir village, Whitwell, just to share some chips from the café, even if it was pouring down with rain and completely empty.
As a place to start a band it felt very isolated. We only had our own devices and influences to push us this way.
Living there was probably very good for allowing us space to find our own sound and identity, however there was no real music scene in Rutland to build you up. There wasn’t much love for synth music among the people in our school year, but we always seemed to know what we stood for. Because of this we were never particularly ‘cool’, yet we had a great start with our first EP and live shows, but word doesn’t really travel far out of those borders.
Alex and I connected over bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure.
We’d been surrounded by synth music thanks to our parents while we were growing up. We were also into our era’s output of pop-punk, rock and metal like Blink-182, Slipknot and Linkin Park.
As we got older, we found ourselves digging deeper into those synth band catalogues as the internet really started to became a mainstream outlet, and we could explore outside of what we had in our homes on CD. As we found our individuality, we’d be finding and listening to sophisticated and sometimes darker records from the likes of Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, The Human League, New Order, The Cure, Nitzer Ebb, Joy Division and just too many to count. It was the way that this built upon what we already knew that made us think on how we could go forward creating music.
We got to a point where I played some keyboards and guitar, and started to find my singing voice. Alex had picked up drums and we started jamming in his shed, mainly Blink-182. Metallica’s ‘Wherever I May Roam’ was the first song we learnt together. We began incorporating synthesisers and electronic drums, and that became our focus. That all continued to evolve over the ten years that Alex and I have been playing music as Centre Excuse.
Centre Excuse is a strange name for our band, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
When Alex and I started making music, we wanted and needed something that wouldn’t show up alongside loads of other bands with the same name on Google, Myspace and Facebook, otherwise people were never going to find us.
The name came from a time when Alex, another friend who played bass with us for about a year, and myself were sat in English class. I wasn’t a bad student really by any means, but I’d had a run of not doing my homework on time with this particular teacher. I went up to her to give my new reasoning for why it wasn’t in, but she jumped in and asked me, “So Teddy, what’s the centre of your excuse this time?” Even today that seems like such an odd sentence, and something in that combination made us pick out the name Centre Excuse. Many occasions of being called Center Excuse, Central Excuse, Centre Exit on gig posters would then ensue, but people have become much better at getting it right since we started the journey towards our first album.
It took us ten years to make this record.
When Alex and I started, we were really young kids. Then we were teenagers at college, and we were together almost every day of our lives for so many years.
Things began to change when I moved to London to go to university. I really wanted to push the band further, as it was proving difficult to make any progress from Rutland. There followed many years of transformation, and a lot of time taken out to improve and naturally evolve what we were doing.
I’ve always done most of the writing and recording by myself, but Alex and I were able to bring things back together as a duo fairly easily when it came to the band, even after I’d moved away. I’d show Alex my new demos and we’d start everything again remotely, while I’d also be going up to Rutland for live rehearsals, which I still do.
We’ve made it work in a way that fits around the responsibilities in our lives, and we hope to make it our sole primary focus at some point. It’s been a difficult balancing act for a number of years now, but I believe Alex and I are as strong a unit as we’ve ever been, especially as we’ve reached the landmark of releasing our debut album. It’s all been building towards this moment.
I write and record the music and lyrics in my little home studio setup, then I’ll send it over to Alex to get his view on it.
We both know what makes a great Centre Excuse song, and we know how we can turn something into one if it isn’t quite there yet. If I wrote a song and Alex said he really didn’t like it, there’d be an issue and we’d have to look at how we could fix it.
On the album there are a number of tracks where Alex re-recorded some of the drum parts, as percussion is where Alex has his roots and where he especially excels. When writing, I always start with the music first. I usually start with either a guitar riff or synth line, and it’s the melody that forms the song for me to go on and create the rest. It comes from a feeling. I’ll get an urge to make something and it’ll pour out, and that’s when the best CE songs come.
I’m very production-oriented. I produce, track and mix the song as I create, so quite often there won’t necessarily be any demos: they’re more like early drafts of the final song. Once the music is fully laid out, that’s when I’ll start to think of the lyrics, which I mainly take from my own experiences or observations of the world and life around me. I’ve had quite a wide-variety of experiences in working very different types of jobs, and I’ve lived and moved around a lot of different places, so I feel I’ve always got a nice breadth of differing perspectives and human realities to write from.
Favourite Soul by Centre Excuse was released July 24 2020 by New Motion Records. Listen on Spotify.
Inevitably, when interviewing musicians in lockdown, you tend to spend a little longer talking about the here and now: how have you found it? What have you been doing? Have you been more or less creative? Where previously that might have felt overly personal and slightly intrusive, in lockdown – as we share these weird experiences together in isolation – it seems legitimate; expected somehow.
As John Foxx answers my questions in his quiet, calming, unhurried voice from his home in Bath (“A good place to be right now,” he says), it occurs to me that Foxx is a musician, vocalist and songwriter who has never seemed exactly comfortable dwelling in the present. Or the past, for that matter. His music has perpetually seemed to be soundtracking some point roughly twenty years into the future, both in its themes and the way it is presented.
And yet, with the latest John Foxx And The Maths album, Howl, Foxx has concerned himself with the future, present and past. It is an album that sees Foxx and the 2020 incarnation of his group – Ben ‘Benge’ Edwards, Hannah Peel and his early Ultravox bandmate Robin Simon – working with musical juxtapositions that felt like they were fleeting and underexplored in music the first time around. This is Foxx and The Maths looking back at those ideas and wondering what they might sound like right now, while also digging through recollections from Foxx’s own personal history.
The result is an album with a power and intensity unlike any other in his back catalogue, a collection of eight songs full of angular sonic shapes, enveloping electronic structures, and acerbic, observational lyricalal themes. It is an album that manages to look back at the past while still sounding futuristic and pioneering as only Foxx knows how.
I’m driving through Bodmin Moor on my way to the south-west edge of Cornwall. Even on a sunny day, the landscape of the moor is a barren and almost alien place. The grass has a scrubby, bleached quality, and even the sheep look hardened and moody. The only thing that punctures the sullen landscape are patches of vivid purple wildflowers growing along the side of the A30, the arterial road slicing through the moors which funnels holidaymakers, second-homers and delivery trucks back and forth.
Strange, then, that a place framed by a certain stillness and silence should be where Howl was realised. This is the locale of Benge’s MemeTune studio, a playground for analogue synthesiser enthusiasts and an enviable, almost certainly unrivalled, collection of electronic music equipment. “I go down there a lot,” enthuses Foxx. “Ben’s studio is right on the edge of the moor. It’s a great place to be and get things done. It’s totally isolated.”
Howl continues the stream of John Foxx albums that started when he and Benge began working together in 2009. Their output together is all the more remarkable for the long list of other projects Edwards is simultaneously involved with – Blancmange, Fader, Wrangler, Creep Show, Stephen Mallinder and so on – each one of which carries its own distinct sonic personality, in spite of him being the constant in each.
For Foxx, Benge reminds him of Conny Plank, the legendary German producer he worked with at the end of the 1970s. “He was about the only one that understood where everything coincided,” he recalls. “He was the only one who understood all the things that I particularly liked, such as Brit-psychedelia, that sort of ragged rock made by musicians like Iggy and The Velvets, and the German electronic scene that was going on in Cologne and Düsseldorf. Conny was the only one who understood that set of connections.
“Benge is a bit like that,” he continues. “He reminds me a lot of Conny. Even his mannerisms do. To meet two people like that in a lifetime is amazing. He’s very generous, and definitely the nicest person I’ve worked with. He’s no softy – he’s got very definite opinions, and won’t budge on certain things. He won’t use any cheap digital sounds, and will always take infinite pains to get the sound he wants to get. He’s a real craftsman.”
Some of that craftsmanship extends to how to make sounds take on a richer, more interesting tone. Foxx talks about how Conny Plank would play sounds through a piano to pick up incidental harmonics from the strings, or playing synths through valve amps to make them powerful. “Benge is exactly the same,” says Foxx. “He has exactly the same philosophy. He’ll route things through other machinery just to see what happens. He just has this delight in sonics, and that delight is essential to making something that sounds different and powerful and varied and exciting, rather than a pedestrian thing that you might have heard a thousand times before.”
Though they have found themselves working in a number of different ways on previous albums, for Howl, each of the songs started with Foxx. “I started off all the songs at home,” he says. “I tend to work in a very basic way – I’ll just get a drum loop working and then add a few sounds that feel right, but I don’t go into any real depth. I’ll get melodies sorted out and probably a vocal as well, but it’s very skeletal. I deliberately keep it like that, because I want to give Ben, and Hannah and Rob as much room to work as I can, and I want them to change things round if they need to. Some things get rewritten completely in the studio. Sometimes we keep lots of things that I’ve done, lots of times they’ll get jettisoned. I’m not precious about any of it. I’ve been through being precious. It’s a pain.”
After working through the initial recordings made with the group, Foxx sat on the songs for a few months. “That was a good thing,” he reflects. “It meant that I could listen to things at home and play with them to see what happened. Having the luxury of time was really interesting. It enabled me to get another perspective on what we’d done. Often you do things at a run, and you don’t get perspective on things until it’s too late and they’re released. This time I had a little while to forget about them, and then review them having cleansed the palate, if you know what I mean. That was really valuable, and it enabled me to be much more objective with things, particularly with some of the guitar stuff that Rob was doing.“
John Foxx first worked with Robin Simon on 1978’s Ultravox album Systems Of Romance, which would prove to be Foxx’s last album with the band he’d founded, as Tiger Lily, back in 1973. “I’ve been wanting to work with him like we did on Howl ever since I worked with him on that album,” he says. “After I left Ultravox I recorded Metamatic, which was all synths. I pursued that style of music for a long time. Rob would come in occasionally to do things, but it was usually a bit peripheral. I always wanted to work with him in a more central role, and just recently I’d started writing songs that really needed him to be in the centre, playing the centre of the song.
“I was trying to remember why I started making music like that in the first place,” he continues. “A lot of that was based around guitars, because that’s all you had in the late sixties and early seventies when I started out, so I just picked up a guitar again and started writing songs. I realised I could get Rob in to play that central role, which would give us a new angle on everything. Right from day one of having Rob in the studio it worked straight away. He’ll always give you half a dozen versions of your own song, some of which you don’t recognise. It’s a strangely affecting process because you’ll go, ‘Oh that doesn’t work at all,’ and then about a week later it’s indispensable – everything’s moved toward what he’s just done. He’s just got this instinct that I’ve never met with anyone else. He becomes so central in the song that everything else gets abandoned. It’s really interesting the way it works.”
Howl was Benge’s first time of working with guitars, which Foxx saw as a good thing. It meant that Benge had none of the baggage that gets attached to guitars – the way they should sound and the way they should be played – and could approach and manipulate the sound like he would any other.
The final ingredient in the 2020 version of The Maths is Hannah Peel, herself an accomplished electronic musician, but also a classically-trained violinist, conductor and composer. Peel has been a member of The Maths since joining them on tour in 2011, providing a distinctive sound that acts as a symbiotic connection between Foxx and Benge. “What can you say about Hannah?” asks Foxx rhetorically. “She can do anything, really. I guess you could say that she’s an excellent conventional musician. She understands harmony and writing and all the necessary things for a composer and conductor to understand in a very orthodox way, but with depth.”
Foxx adds that that Peel’s rarest quality is an interest in taking chances and just see what happens. “She’s completely willing to make noises and stretch everything as far as you possibly can,” he says. “She’s happy to improvise. I’ve worked with lots of classically-trained musicians before, and they’ve never been totally happy with what recording studios can do, but Hannah’s straight in there. Like Ben, she takes a great joy in seeing how far we can push things, and how strange we can make things sound, and that’s wonderful to work with. Like everyone else involved, she’s got great instinct and that’s what you look for with great musicians to work with: people who want the same thing that you want, but in a different manner, and who come at things from a different angle. There’s nothing worse in a session than having to explain things.”
The studio dynamic is important to Foxx. He talks with enthusiasm about recording sessions moving quickly and on instinct, where everyone is working at the right speed and no one has to explain anything. “Often, the only words that get spoken in the studio are ‘yeah’, ‘great’ and ‘go for it’,” he says, laughing. “It’s very inarticulate, verbally, because you’re communicating through music. You’re communicating through sound. It’s all monosyllabic, but there’s a heck of a lot of communication going on that’s not verbal, and that’s what I like. I like the non-verbal connections with Benge, Hannah and Rob.”
The centrepiece of Howl is its title track, a snarling, twitchy track full of fuzzy synths and Robin Simon’s distinctive, angular guitar. It still sounds forward-looking and modern, but it also sounds like an unreleased session from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters era, even down to Foxx’s vocal. That reference taps into something that Foxx and Benge spoke about in the run-up to making the record. “There are lots of eras that were never properly explored, and lots of moments that were not properly explored because everything moves so fast,” explains Foxx. “In Benge’s case it’s analogue synths. Digital synths came in and immediately everyone just abandoned analogue stuff without having properly explored it. Years later Benge picks it all up out of a skip and regenerates the whole thing, and then everyone realises that they didn’t realise how powerful analogue synths were.
“I think that period that we had in Ultravox with Systems Of Romance was another one that we never really got to explore,” he adds. “It was a new thing in its time. No one had done that before, and then it was abandoned, and I went into doing synthesiser-only things. We never got to explore what might have happened if we’d continued with that sound. It’s sort of a lost chapter, in a way. That was one of the things I thought might be interesting – seeing what would happen if we picked up that again now, in the light of everything’s that happened since. I often thought that with Kraftwerk. They did ‘Neon Lights’ and never followed that up. It’s unlike everything else they did. I thought that was a great new direction for them. To me it felt like Frank Sinatra with synthesisers, which I thought could be really interesting this, but they never followed it up.”
While being highly respectful of Kraftwerk’s legacy, Foxx was keen to try and slough off the inevitable influence they’ve had on him and most electronic musicians, from being relative outsiders in the 1970s to being completely central in the 1980s and 1990s. “I always think that when an orthodoxy gets erected like that, I just want to pass by it and get onto something else,” says Foxx.
On the vague similarities with Scary Monsters you can hear on ‘Howl’, Foxx likes to think of that as one of the happy accidents that can happen in the studio. “Rob came in on a song I’d already written, and just did a try-out for the sound,” says Foxx. “He suddenly got that very angular sound and he played it in a very angular way, and it was totally unexpected. Ben and I just looked at each other and went, ’Wow – we’ve got to keep that!’ Rob just played one take, and that was it. It did remind me of what Fripp had done on Scary Monsters, and I’d always liked that. I thought that was another thing that happened for a moment and then disappeared. It felt to me like that was a new way of handling guitar, but to me it felt a little bit stuck on, and not quite part of the song in some ways. I thought it would be great to revisit that and see what we can do with it in this day and age.”
“The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli . . . the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.”
– Georg Simmel, The Metropolis & Mental Life (1903)
“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
– Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1956)
‘Howl’ finds Foxx reflecting on modern cities and the pressures that they can inflict on their residents. “I’d been up to Manchester,” he recalls. “There’s a certain kind of drunk or drug user who like to shout in the middle of a crowd. When I see that, it just reminds me of the effect that cities have on people sometimes. The pressure means that people just have to let loose, and I could feel a lot of that in the air all over just before the pandemic. That pressure’s there, and it felt like it had to be let loose, and that’s what that song describes.”
Foxx also talks about re-reading Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem of the same name in the run-up to writing the song. He found a connection to the atmosphere he’d felt in big cities and the white-hot bop-era chaos and counter-cultural vibrancy of the period that Ginsberg’s poem so viscerally documented. “Songs are a lot of coincidences,” explains Foxx. “I always start with a sound, because I can’t start with words. What tends to happen is that the sound will attract lots of other things to it that. It’s a very unconscious process. You find yourself remembering lots of memories, and a lot of free association takes place. For example, there were all these things about the Golden Mile in Blackpool that used to be mayhem during what used to be called ‘Glasgow Week’, when the workers from Glasgow would head down to Blackpool for their week-long holiday. It a beautiful place full of lights, but in that week, it was also complete mayhem! There were lots of bits in that song that come together under that heading of ‘howl’. The process of writing songs has always interested me. It’s the way you can gather together little fragments and lots of little delicious things that you’ve kept somewhere, and then suddenly they’ve all got a context, and they all gather together. It’s like a kind of magnetism happens.”
One of the other standout songs on Howl is ‘Everything Is Happening At The Same Time’, a track that nods firmly in the direction of The Beatles at their most overtly psychedelic. That was the era in which the young Foxx – or Dennis Leigh, as he was known then – was first switched on to music, later experimenting with tape techniques in a not dissimilar fashion to The Beatles’ most extreme sound explorations.
“’Everything Is Happening At The Same Time’ was me revisiting that ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ moment, and seeing what we could do with that,” he explains. “At the same, in the lyrics to that song, I’m talking about things that are happening around us – specifically the fires in America and Australia and Europe, and that really triggered that one off. All the news reports over the preceding months before I wrote it had been getting worse and worse in every respect, and also more and more extreme. To me, it did feel like everything was happening at the same time, and no one was handling it. I just looked around at what was actually happening, what were we actually doing about these things, and it didn’t seem sufficient. It seemed like we’d allowed ourselves to drift into this kind of situation, like we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking that we’re very secure, when things are actually a lot more fragile than we supposed. And then of course we get this pandemic which really confirms all that.”
Foxx calls out Hannah Peel’s significant contribution to ‘Everything Is Happening At The Same Time providing the track which a series of churning, heavily processed violin sections. “She played it beautifully and widened the whole thing out,” he says. “Hannah just has this incredible ability to get into the song like that and the whole sound just becomes much broader and bigger because of that. It’s great to see her working and hear the results, and you can hear that coming through on that song.”
‘New York Times’ finds Foxx revisiting the canyons, avenues and streets of New York City, tapping into the same notion of people choosing to live under intense pressure as he does on ‘Howl’. I find myself reminded of a friend, recently moved out of Manhattan for good, who once told me that everyone has to be a little bit crazy to live there. For ‘New York Times’, Foxx adopts the kind of character personification and observational narrative familiar from Lou Reed lyrics, referencing the Velvets’ ‘Sister Ray’ as he does so. “My memories of New York are very mixed,” he says. “When I go back to Manhattan now, it’s a much, much calmer place in some ways. It’s still a highly pressurised city and it always will be. But, in the seventies when I spent some time there, it was always real mayhem. It was a difficult city to live in, with a lot of crime and a lot of drugs. New York was where every person who didn’t fit in accumulated, because it was cheap to live there. It was a tremendous place to be but it was so highly charged.”
For Foxx, New York was a strange, inexplicable and often terrifying place. ‘New York Times’ was his way of reflecting on the way the city has changed, and how the people who pass through the city changes. “That was the kind of narrative I was going for,” he reflects. “To me, it was like revisiting the ghost of ‘Sister Ray’ that The Velvets left behind. ‘Sister Ray’ was a very extreme song in 1968, and it gave you the real feeling New York as it was back then. I wanted to see how it felt, now, going back there, but not with any sadness. Things have just changed. You go through a city and it’s got ghosts in it, and memories, and at the same time it’s heading somewhere else. It’s that duality that I wanted to get. As you get older, you begin to see that everywhere. Everywhere you look you see the memories you’ve invested in a city, and that’s what make it part of your own memory. It’s like a self-programming device every time you walk down a street: you get these ghosts coming at you all the time. You react to them. You see the city through layers of experience that you’ve had. That’s why it’s called ’New York Times’. It’s not just about one time – it’s about many times.”
Howl is an album that couldn’t exist without what John Foxx describes as the “long perspectives” that come from almost fifty years of scanning the world around us, absorbing what troubles us, what drives us, what makes us who we are, and how things might turn out. You hear those ideas across the breadth of Howl, not just in its lyrics but in its sonic weaponry: synths explode like dirty bombs, guitars splinter like shrapnel and violins are so heavily distorted that it’s not remotely obvious where the line between the organic and the electronic sits.
In spite of Howl’s densely-layered structure and its Foxxian, inimitably futuristic poise, its architect likes to think of himself as one of life’s optimists. He talks about humankind’s essential resilience, our ability to rise out of existential crises and come out stronger. Howl is what comes from John Foxx – more poet than songwriter in the way he writes – taking in everything he sees around him and threading those notions with his own personal experiences. If it sounds like a scary, ominous place, it is also a place of nostalgia, of reflection and a powerful example of what happens when four disciplined masters of their craft come together on electronic music’s most vital frontier.
Howl by John Foxx And The Maths is released July 24 2020 by Metamatic. With thanks to Steve.