Fragments is the debut album from LA’s Body/Negative, the pseudonym of nonbinary multi-instrumentalist and producer Andy Schiaffino, and follows their Epoche EP from 2019. Beginning with an instrumental cover of Elliott Smith’s ‘Figure 8’ that sounds like it’s being heard through the gauzy vestiges of sleep, Schiaffino has produced an ambient album full of unique personality and highly personal, almost diaristic reference points.
Further. spoke to Schiaffino about the thoughts, feelings and inspirations that went into the creation of this beautiful micro-masterpiece of an album.
Listening to classical music as a child definitely influenced the way that I write. I primarily use sitting at my piano as my main source of inspiration – music always seems to come out of me easier on the piano if that makes sense. I grew up listening to a lot of classical composers and opera – things like Yanni and Andre Rieu – and groups like Thievery Corporation thanks to my oldest brother’s exceptionally good taste. I feel like all of those early sources informed the melodies that I create now and maybe even appears in my vocal style and often lack of lyrics.
The making of Fragments began probably in the summer of 2019. I had a lot of demos I was fleshing out with Dylan Gardner of the psych project Communicant, who ended up co-producing half of the record. I didn’t really intend to make an LP at first, I was just working on ideas, but all of those tracks just sort of found their way into being on this album. I put it down around the early spring of this year when I was in a really depressed state which eventually led to a major break up in my life, and I couldn’t bear to listen to any of the songs until maybe June or so when we were deep in quarantine.
I think I took a lot of inspiration not only from the electronic music, IDM and ambient music that I listen to, but also a whole lot of pop music. My co-producer has his roots in pop and produces a lot of pop artists. He showed me a lot of really, really awesome pop artists who have some pretty incredibly experimental production. I really tried to harness those textual elements that I found and put it in my music in a way that felt appropriate. Pop music really was a huge influence throughout the making of the first and second half of the record, in addition to things like shoegaze and dreampop.
Inspiration, productivity and creative impulses are pretty sporadic for me. I can’t really just sit down and force myself to write something. I really envy the people that do have that ability! I can pretty much only write when I want to and when I have an idea; whether a melody pops into my head while I’m driving, or I hear something in a song that I want to replicate. My demos always have to have some kind of clear purpose behind why I’m sitting down to make it, otherwise I just kind of make garbage.
A lot of my music is made while sitting on the floor of my living room surrounded by gear and tangled cables. I don’t know why but that kind of weird chaotic space makes the most sense for me and helps me get all my ideas out. Pretty much all of the album was recorded in my home, aside from ‘Figure 8’, which was recorded in my co-producer Dylan’s studio and engineered entirely by him. The final track ‘The Big Sleep’ was a remote co-write with my friend Nick Ventura. He did about half of the things you hear on that track, and I believe recorded his parts in his own home.
My co-producer Dylan used to always play Elliott Smith’s ‘Figure 8’ for me on his beautiful teachers’ model Wurlitzer piano which I am so envious of and want one of my own. He used to always play me that song before I had ever really dived deep into Elliott‘s catalogue – Dylan was already a massive superfan and eventually showed me all of my now-favourite Elliott tracks. Dylan played it so beautifully that I always just assumed that it was one of Dylan‘s original songs; I never knew it was a cover of something! I found that melody to be so beautiful and so strange, and eventually one day I woke up with such a strong urge to cover it and make it my own, so Dylan and I recorded our version of it in one night.
I absolutely love Elliott Smith. I was kind of a late fan even though I’ve been seeing murals of him everywhere ever since I moved to LA in 2017. I hope I don’t lose too many cool points for admitting that! His music has such a fragile quality to it, and it’s got this just really beautiful element to it which I think isn’t found in a lot of modern singer-songwriters’ catalogues. I think he was a really special person and I relate a lot to his story… In addition to that he’s just an incredible guitarist and undeniable melody magician and I think that he is totally underrated.
The first half of Fragments was recorded in chronological order. I was feeling really down and there were a lot of tough things happening in my life. The second half of the record was kind of just reflecting on the idea of saving yourself, and helping yourself stay afloat.
The very last track ‘The Big Sleep’ is a euphemism for suicide (and also a cheeky reference to David Lynch). My decision to make that the final track on the record was not only because it is sonically lighter than the first half of the record, but it’s also a song that’s about wondering what lies beyond life. I never really felt existential in that sort of way. Rather than fearing the endless unknown of the afterlife, I always welcomed death with open arms, and there’s been a lot of death in my life, so it always felt very normal for me strangely.
That track was me grappling with the idea of, “What actually happens after I die?” for the first time in probably my entire life, so I thought it would be an excellent album closer, to leave things on a light note, right? I think the latter half of Fragments was both intentionally and unintentionally lighter, and definitely draws more from shoegaze and dreampop (mainly bands like Alcest, Slowdive, Hatchie, Tamaryn), much more so than the first half of the record.
Fragments by Body/Negative was released October 23 2020 by Track Number Records.
How did the Isolation & Rejection idea come to you, particularly as you’d shut F&F the year before?
F&F was officially in hibernation in November 2019, following the release of Ekoplekz’s last album. It was a great way to end things, at least for now I thought, and I had no intentions of doing anything with the label for a while at least (perhaps never) – running F&F was great fun and I got to work with some incredible artists, but I needed a break and wanted to forget about it for a while (I wrote a short piece for Electronic Sound which goes into some of the reasons).
Christmas that year was glorious – the kids even got presents instead of more vinyl in the basement.
Then just when I thought I was out… etc.
I&R started with a throwaway comment on Twitter (where all throwaway comments go to die), as lockdown and the challenges being faced (for individuals, families, charities, the NHS but also the creative sector) inspired a flurry of activity from artists and labels, which was wonderful to see – this included a whole bunch of projects and compilations all raising funds for great local and national causes*.
I wondered, in the aftermath of the first batch of new compilations out of lockdown, what happens to all those rejected tracks? The project grew from there, eventually turning into a place where tracks rejected or abandoned in any way could find a home.
The basic idea also touched on something I’ve always found weird about running a label, which is the bit about deciding if something is any good or not, or if it ‘fits’. It might just be me, but that always felt weird and even a little unhealthy (not doing it in isolation helped, like the collaboration with Joe Stannard for The Outer Church). People running record labels don’t know any better than anyone else, obviously – often they are just weird, evil narcissists using the record label business to expand their empires of misery, discarding artistic dreams with abandon and a belly laugh (joke).
Doing something open and inclusive seemed like a good idea, and timely. I then stupidly expanded on the idea online, chatted to Rob Spencer (from Gated Canal Community) about it and we then jointly stumbled into this huge (and joyous) project.
We have 105 artists involved, with more tracks being submitted after the deadline (which were, unfortunately, rejected – the compilation of those tracks will no doubt appear at some point).
Rob and I were pretty surprised by the response – I was thinking a nice little project, maybe 20-25 artists, would be lovely and help me cope with the insanity of lockdown (and shielding for me personally – 6 months in one room is not a good idea).
Nothing I’ve heard thus far sounds like it should have been rejected. Did you get any stories explaining why something had been overlooked?
We got loads of great stories – some weird, some funny, and some quite upsetting.
We’ve put together a few of the stories and shared them on the GCC website here and here – and will be putting up more soon.
There are some consistent themes – it seems rejection is a shared experience of many artists.
How did The Brick come into the equation? Were you aware of their work before?
Rob is from Wigan (go Cherry and Whites) and suggested they would be a good charity to raise money for.
We were keen to make sure that any money raised went locally, and went directly to a charity dealing with not only the impact of COVID-19 but many of the inequality and injustices that have unfortunately become a part of society right now.
The Brick felt like a good home for the project – they do amazing work, and are also lovely people.
Are you sure you can’t be convinced to do a Volume 6? Or a second lockdown series?
As mentioned above, we had some submissions after the closing date, and I really wanted to do a bonus 6th volume, but already it was feeling like a huge undertaking and I wanted to make sure it didn’t all fall apart.
Fingers crossed it hasn’t – I hope that the artists feel like we did it justice.
We have got another project in the works though – another one launched on twitter with very little consideration to any of the implications (and this one comes with some added trickiness…).
Philadelphia-based Alka release their fourth album, the portentously-titled Regarding The Auguries, on October 9th through Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords. Originally a solo IDM project of Bryan Michael, Alka is now reconfigured as a trio with visual artist Erika Tele and likeminded electronic producer Todd Steponick, a line-up familiar from their pre-lockdown live shows.
“I think we’ve always been working towards being a more cohesive unit,” explains Bryan. “We like calling ourselves a unit – I mean, are you really a ‘band’ in the electronic music world? When I started the Alka project it was really just me and a laptop, and while I had fun with that, eventually I got bored with the process. Recording this album was really collaborative – I might start an idea; I’ll send it to Todd; he’ll send it to Erika; they’ll send it back, I’ll hear something else and we do this back and forth until we get a sound we like. It’s spontaneous, but it was done in a kind of slow motion.”
We spoke to Bryan, Erika and Todd about some of their favourite albums and major influences. For more information on Regarding The Auguries, head to veryrecords.com.
Xymox – Twist Of Shadows Wing Records / Polydor, 1989
I can admire a band wanting to do something different. After two solid albums on 4AD, Clan Of Xymox was ready for a change. Perhaps a nod towards making their music more accessible, Twist Of Shadows’ production values are slightly different than their former releases whilst retaining the band’s signature gloomy vibe. Having dropped the ‘Clan Of’ from their moniker, switching from 4AD to Polygram, and partnering with fellow Dutch synthesist Bert Barten for songwriting and production efforts, Xymox went on to create what is quite possibly the best synthpop record of the late 80s. Decidedly less goth and more melancholic synthpop, Twist of Shadows is an underrated classic filled with beautifully dark vibes. The idea that something could be this introspective yet still synthpop is something I carry with me in our music as Alka. – Bryan
Newcleus – Space Is The Place Sunnyview, 1985
Space Is The Place, Newcleus’s second full-length album from 1985, following up from their first album Jam On Revenge in 1984, is soulful, melancholic, contemplative and upbeat at the same time. It brings out so much of the personality of the band, their originality and such a futuristic space narrative from the heydays of hip -hop. It’s so out of this world that it’s really a mystery as to why they are so much lesser known than their flashier hip-hop counterparts. Electro-funk took much more of an underground passage that slid beneath the louder mainstream rap and hip-hop, yet this band was creating imaginative, innovative live electronic funk! The first album Jam On Revenge, has the hit b-boy anthem ‘Jam On It’ (with an amazing video to go along), but this second album really resonates in my soul and inspired me as a person and artist. I have so much respect for this band, and am so humbled to share the airwaves with Cozmo D and his son DJ Dogtrane on Global Funk Radio. The composition, performance, writing and concept makes it a magical masterpiece – definitely one to experience. Come on and take a ride! – Erika
Coil – Horse Rotorvator Force & Form / K.422, 1986
After hearing ‘Ostia’ in the 80s on my local college radio station and future alma mater (WKDU Drexel) I was instantly enchanted with Coil. The cascading and meandering Fairlight guitar sample sounding like it was programmed by some broken medieval robot, punctuated by haunting strings and Jhonn Balance’s melancholic delivery. “There’s honey in the hollows and the contours of the body…” It’s just perfect. I loved how it was this deeply sad song yet somehow upbeat, clocking in at 126 BPM. The entire album is genuinely a masterpiece and an enigma of its time having been recorded on a hired Fairlight and Emulator II in 1986, both extremely expensive bits of gear for English underground musicians. I guess what I pull from Coil’s influence is their diversity in sound – one moment brooding drones, the next acid house, all while never losing the mystery. – Bryan
Julia Kent – Asperities The Leaf Label Ltd, 2015
There is no way to put on happy music in a century like this and not feel like you’re somehow lying to yourself. More vulnerability and confrontation with the uncomfortable than anything like an escape, Julia Kent‘s cello work resonates with nuanced reflection navigating real-world hardships. Similar to the way glaciers once steadily scraped landscapes bare and carved mountains and vales, what remains is that which may have had more integrity than the friction could take. Strengths, and a handle on the centre, but at a cost. Something of this mammoth, austere process feels inherent in the enduring heart of the artist working the cello, and the strewn grey boulders of Asperities is the evidence. In early Autumn 2020, its somber story quietly commiserates, like an intricate monument to hard-earned survival left to be found by others lost and struggling in the bleak grey stretches of time. Mysterious electronics occasionally emerge and remind of only more uncertainties. Anxieties over accelerating existential threats weigh and grind. Powerlessness and atomization frustrate through a pandemic under narcissistic mismanagement. Default anxieties fester in the mix. Asperities feels like it takes in all of these things, scores a harrowing way through, and consoles as we wait to heal. – Todd
Plaid – P-brane EP Warp, 2002
Something about Plaid‘s programming always intrigues and inspires me. It’s so intensely intricate and sonically rich but it’s the creeping melodies and chords changes that make my brain shiver with delight. It’s impossible to choose one album as their best but this particular EP was the sole reason for me to quit traditional guitar-based bands and return to my electronic roots with Alka once and for all. With shimmering almost new-age arps and delicate pads juxtaposed with complex, ever-evolving, and at times quite heavy rhythms, Plaid are at once eminently danceable and yet completely brooding and thoughtful. I challenge you to listen to the ending of ‘Coats’ and not get chills. – Bryan
Regarding The Auguries by Alka is released October 9 2020 by VeryRecords.
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.
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.
Today Further. brings you the first play of ‘Poolside’, the new single by Brighton singer-songwriter Flossy Jones.
A hypnotic, languid pop song presented with an aching, mysterious narrative, ‘Poolside’ finds Flossy depicting a dream-like scene. We find voyeuristic boys watching the protagonist swimming while drinking on the edge of the water. We see palm trees and concrete flamingos gazing mutely and without judgment at the scene. It is a song of extreme juxtapositions, the summery warmth of the imagery in Flossy’s lyrics offset by a distinct chill thanks to a hazy backdrop of electronics, piano and submerged rhythms.
“It’s a story about the other woman,” says Flossy tentatively about the subject’s shrouded subject matter. “It’s about a time in my life where I’d wait at midnight underneath the palms each night for someone to arrive. The song came to me while I was watching the reflection of the moonlight in the pool. It was almost like a vision of darkness that caught my attention while I was waiting there one night. I find myself really inspired, creatively, by beautifully unconventional situations like that.”
For the most part, the mesmerising ‘Poolside’ is sung in a detached, understated style acting as the perfect match to the graceful, delicate musical backdrop. A latent sensuality comes to the fore as the track – and the affair – progresses, leaving the song poised on a strange axis between the romantic and the anguished; between levity and brooding disappointment; between a yearning for the affair to become something more defined and an acceptance of the futility of that notion. Its highly evocative imagery transports you into the scene, whereupon you find yourself complicit in the long looks of the pool’s myriad spectators.
The track is backed by the poignant, fragile and ultimately hopeful ‘When It’s All Over’. “I wrote that song at the start of lockdown,” says Flossy. “I missed everyone. I missed my life. Sometimes you have these moments where songs just come to you, and it takes maybe no more than five minutes to write them. It’s when you feel so passionately, where you’re right there in that very moment, and that was definitely the case with that song.”
Listen to ‘Poolside’ below.
Flossy Jones · Poolside
Poolside by Flossy Jones is released on June 19 2020 by Blitzcat Records. All proceeds from the first week of the single will be donated to Show Racism The Red Card.
“I enjoy being busy,” says Blancmange’s Neil Arthur. On the day we spoke he’d written some new music, signed a huge batch of vinyl and CD copies of the new Blancmange album, Mindset, some gardening and some DIY jobs around his house. “I’m not very good at doing nowt,” he admits, in his lyrical Lancastrian accent.
Mindset is Blancmange’s twelfth album. That needs to be seen in the context of a prolific streak that has seen nine Blancmange albums appear since the group became active again in 2011, alongside two albums with Ben ‘Benge’ Edwards as Fader, another pairing with Gazelle Twin collaborator Jez Bernholz as Near Future and a mini-LP with Kincaid (his son, Joe). Stephen Luscombe, with whom Neil formed the band in 1979, was forced to leave the group after 2011’s Blanc Burn owing to ill health, leaving Blancmange as Neil’s solo project.
“I’m probably happiest when I’m being creative,” offers Neil by way of explanation, and it shows. None of these projects are wistful, nostalgic retreads of songs like ‘Blind Vision’ or ‘Living On The Ceiling’ with which Blancmange found initial success at the start of the 1980s. These are records that exist firmly in the here and now, that reflect back the current world we live in yet which are threaded through with personal reflections – on relationships, on situations, on life in general. Mindset finds Neil ruminating on everything from the playground recollections of his Lancashire youth, to calls for transparency and honesty, and onward to the darkest sides of social media. It is an album loaded with observation and dark humour – in other words, classic Blancmange.
Neil Arthur’s prolific streak has delivered more music into the hands of fans than Blancmange delivered across the whole of the 1980s. After he and Stephen went their separate ways after the release of Believe You Me in 1985, there followed a long stretch of very little music from Neil up until 2011, that silence being interrupted only by a solo album, Suitcase, in 1994. While his recent, comparatively frantic current release schedule might seem strange in the context of that silence, it helps to understand where he was spending his time in the years after Blancmange separated.
“I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to do film and TV music,” he explains. “You’ve got to work really quick when you do that stuff. You’ve got to be prepared to make decisions, and lots of mistakes as well. I think one of the disciplines that came from doing so much music, particularly for TV, was that the turnaround was sometimes so quick: if you were doing a pitch for a commercial or whatever, you’d go, ‘I’ve got to come up with this idea right now.’ There’s no point in pussyfooting around and getting all bloody precious about it – you’ve just got to get it down.” Right now, Neil is also working on another Near Future album, another project with Kincaid and is building up a collection of tracks with Erasure’s Vince Clarke (“He comes up with lots of ideas, he’s good to bounce stuff off and he’s fun to be around,” offers Vince.)
Neil also talks about feeling like he’s been “let off the leash” creatively. Supported by a loyal fanbase, he has been able to pivot the Blancmange sound in multiple varied directions, repositioning his vocal and distinctive outlook on the world alongside some of the most inventive use of adventurous electronics in the pop genre. Mindset is the third Blancmange album to have been crafted with Benge, and the record bears the hallmarks of the vast array of vintage analogue equipment to be found in his Memetune studio in Cornwall.
Given that there are two groups that see Neil collaborating with Benge – Blancmange and Fader – it begs the question as to what makes a Blancmange album, and what makes a Fader record.
“With Fader, Benge starts the ball rolling, and I think that’s crucial,” explains Neil. “He comes up with some instrumental ideas, some of which are more developed than others. They’re like thumbnail sketches – very simple some of them – but then some of them are more complex. That’s where it starts and then I add my twopenn’orth. On last year’s Fader album, In Shadow, Benge had done 95%, if not more, of the instrumentation, and I stuck to vocals, and then we mixed it and produced it together.” With Blancmange, the process is almost effectively reversed. “Blancmange is just me, and so it starts with me,” says Neil. “I write a load of songs, and then I offer them to Benge. We get together at his studio, we work on the structures, we change the sounds, add a few parts, and I add the lyrics.”
While both groups will eventually see both Benge and Neil meet somewhere in the middle, the different starting points gives Blancmange and Fader albums entirely distinct personalities. “The logic would tell you that,” agrees Neil. “For example, with Fader, I have the opportunity, on first hearing, to react to something that I have no idea what I’m going to get, and Benge has the same thing when I come up with ideas for a Blancmange record. Then we bounce ideas as we get closer to the point of it being finished. We get closer and closer to us both manipulating sounds on a synthesiser or whatever it might be, but the two projects have come from very different places, initially. They’ve come from different brains.”
If you take a look at the studio photographs on Benge’s Memetune website, what immediately strikes you is the sheer amount of kit available to bring to a project. I wonder whether that can be a problem, given there’s so much to choose from and potentially be distracted by, almost as if that might stifle the energy that comes with being prolific. “Well yeah, there’s a lot of lights flashing on and off and stuff like that,” laughs Neil. “When Benge and I work together, we’re pretty good at keeping it focussed on what is needed, and we don’t get too distracted. Of course, there are moments where you’re working on any project where you end up going slightly sideways, but we’re pretty functional when we work together. We’re very focussed on what’s needed.
“We have a hell of a laugh when we’re doing it as well,” he adds. “We have a lot of fun, even if a lot of the music’s quite dark. We spend a lot of time together in the studio laughing. You’ve got to, you know? Sometimes you can’t help it with electronic sounds – you’re sitting there gurning when you’re doing a filter sweep. It can be a real laugh.”
Anyone who’s taken a listen to a Blancmange record will recognise a particular strain of humour, and Mindset – for all its explorations of heavy subject matter – is certainly faithful to Neil’s ability to use wordplay to lighten the mood.
Perhaps the best example of this on Mindset is the track ‘Anti-Social Media’, a song that takes a sideways look at the trolling and the sinister sides of apps that were designed to bring people together, not force prejudices and divisions. “Thankfully nothing in this song is related to anything I’ve experienced personally,” says Neil, with some relief. “But, from an observational standpoint of what’s going on, I’ve taken loads of stuff in. It’s quite easy for people to let go of some opinion – they just send something off, just like that. Press the button and it’s gone. But the receiver can pick up on it in so many different ways, if there’s any subtlety at all in the message, and can quite often be very, very upset. It’s been in the news all too frequently, and there’s been some horrific, sad and tragic cases. Even so, I had a lot of fun with the lyrics – things like the line ‘chastise me and baptise me’, or the idea that you can criticise me but please just wait until the end of the song. I’m having a bit of a laugh at the idiots who think it’s alright to behave like that and hide. They’re cowards, aren’t they? Bastards. It’s something I wanted to write about, and it seemed to fit with the groove I’d got going.”
Speaking of grooves, taken as a whole Mindset moves forward with a relentless momentum, the rhythms and sounds nodding squarely in the direction of clubbier electronic music. “I wanted it to move along with a pace,” he says. “Dark as some of the lyrics might be with twisted black humour, I still wanted them to be supported by something that kept the pace going, and Benge and I didn’t want too much getting in the way of that if we could help it. It definitely leans toward a faster pace, so you’d be able to, you know, move a leg to it if you wanted to.”
‘Insomniacs Tonight’ plays with that sense of momentum using a framework of sounds and beats that belong in minimal techno, beginning very sparsely before firming up into something more anxious, evoking the feeling of a sleepless night. “I don’t sleep very well,” confesses Neil. “It’s a very different world in the middle of the night. That song starts very simply, but once it gets going, it’s like a train of thought.”
Another standout track on Mindset is ‘This Is Bliss’, an exercise in keeping things defiantly simple, staying resolutely sparse and unadorned throughout. “One of the things that I’ve tried to do lyrically, and musically, as I’ve got older is that if something doesn’t need to be there, you don’t have to have it,” Neil explains. “Benge and I agree on this – there’s no point putting another part on top of something if the one that’s there doesn’t need supporting. With ‘This Is Bliss’, there wasn’t a lot in it when I took it to Benge, and we kept it that way – we just improved some of the sounds, and replaced the original rhythms with analogue drums.
“The idea of keeping things minimal is something I’ve striven for for bloody ages,” reflects Neil. “Less is best, but sometimes it’s difficult to hold your ground on it. Maybe on this one we were getting closer to that. We tried to leave as much space as possible.”
This starts to tap into the influences that have informed Neil Arthur’s approach to music, many of which are reverentially to be found on display across the breadth of Mindset. “One of the biggest influences on early Blancmange, from my point of view, was The Young Marble Giants. Although they never used synthesisers, they’re the epitome, for me, of minimalism, and they’re still one of my favourite bands. It’s perfectly executed, lyrically, structurally, and in their instrumentation. You simply didn’t need anything else. I saw them live so many times, and that’s definitely stayed with me.”
Elsewhere on the record you can hear the trace echoes of Neu!’s distinctive pulse on the album’s title track, fused with a small dose of the Velvet Underground. You also hear deferential – but never plagiaristic – nods in the direction of Roxy Music, Sparks and LCD Soundsystem, all within the same song. To wear those influences so vividly on your sleeve without ever sounding anything other than like Blancmange is quite the achievement. Elsewhere on the record, ‘Diagram’s direct call for truth and honesty finds Neil crossing the intimidating style of Grace Jones with the lysergic energy of vintage Cabaret Voltaire, whose Stephen Mallinder is one of Benge’s bandmates in Wrangler. Sticking with Sheffield, Neil plays me the snarling intro to ‘Anti-Social Media’ and intones Phil Oakey’s spoken word intro to The Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ over the top, accompanied by a dry and charismatic chuckle.
The album is also characteristically personal, though Neil is at pains to maintain some comfortable ambiguity. ‘Not Really (Virtual Reality)?’ transports us back to the Lancashire town of Darwen, his home town, the lyrics reflecting the moors of his childhood and the phrase he and his pals would use whenever someone was thought to be bending the truth – ’et wady’. There are also songs dealing with family and domestic issues, while ‘Warm Reception’ finds a detached Neil running through quotidian thoughts and ministrations, inspired by a painting bearing the same name by his wife. Not for nothing does he describe lyric writing as “like having a contact mic on the inside of my brain”.
The album concludes with the poignant ‘When’. “The chorus on that song really sums it up – ‘When is anything / About what it’s about?’ It happens to people all the time: someone can be on the receiving end of an emotive outburst that leaves a feeling of being distraught and empty. But then it becomes obvious that, in actual fact, you’ve received all this stuff because basically it’s the other person’s baggage, and you’re now having to carry that around yourself. What you may have had in mind when there was some kind of argument hasn’t been discussed at all. It’s like in a Woody Allen film when he puts the subtext underneath the dialogue – it’s nothing to do with what it’s really about.”
It’s a beautiful spring lockdown evening, and Neil, a keen cyclist, wants to get out on his bike near his Cotswolds home before it gets dark. There’s just enough time for one more honest reflection before he heads off. “I’m really bloody fortunate because we’ve got a very loyal fanbase,” he muses. “They want to listen to the new stuff, but obviously like the old songs. I’m very happy to play the old stuff – I thoroughly enjoy it, and I’m incredibly proud of the music Stephen and I did all those years ago.
“I completely understand that, when I go out on stage, it wouldn’t be a Blancmange show without those songs. That’s absolutely fine by me. I’ve got to say, though, I’m much more interested in the future,” he concludes before heading off, no doubt working on even more songs as he pedals his way through the countryside.
Mindset by Blancmange is released June 5 2020 by Blanc Check. Buy signed copies of Mindset at Blancmange’s website.
As things like self-isolation and social distancing became phrases and concepts the majority of the world has quickly become accustomed to, it’s been the art of the hasty pivot that has characterised lockdown: businesses that relied on face-to-face interactions suddenly thrust themselves into the hitherto unknown territory of digital engagement, restaurants suddenly offered take-out where they previously relied on seated diners, wholesale retailers suddenly became direct-to-customer operations; we have moved from the need to see, touch and meet people to drinking espresso and gin over video conference, walking in the middle of the road to bypass another pedestrian walking toward you, and following authoritarian one-way systems around supermarkets. None of this we could have conceived of a few months ago, yet we are now all – mostly – suddenly expert.
The way we consume and enjoy music was almost immediately disrupted by the measures governments put in place. Gigs and festivals were cancelled; release dates got put back; pressing plants shut down; critical calendar entries like Record Store Day were postponed; venues were almost immediately shuttered. These are existential events for artists, bands, labels, designers and the countless individuals and businesses that support the music industry.
In response, all manner of COVID-19 projects quickly sprang up: compilation releases to support frontline essential workers; isolation playlists were hastily assembled, often comprising lots of soothing ambient music; live-streamed solo bedroom gigs delivered your favourite artist into your front room; noodling Soundcloud tracks appeared with high velocity, the product of idle fingers, a need for expression, boredom and the advantage of a broadband connection.
One very special and highly distinctive project to emerge from this is Touch: Isolation, announced last week by Touch. “The pack of COVID-19 cards came down quite quickly, and we wanted to respond to some immediate problems many of our artists were experiencing,” says Jon Wozencroft, who founded the label 38 years ago, later bringing in Mike Harding to work with him.
Available through Bandcamp for a minimum £20 subscription, all of which is divided up among its contributors, Touch: Isolation consists of at least twenty tracks from Touch artists, each one mastered by Denis Blackham – that, in itself, an example of the label’s dependable obsession with quality presentation despite the speed with which the project was conceived and realised. At the time of writing, releases have already come through from Jana Winderen, Chris Watson, Bana Haffar, Mark Van Hoen and Richard Chartier with tracks incoming from Howlround, Claire M Singer, Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, Philip Jeck, Carl Michael von Hausswolff and others who have issued released material through Touch.
“By the nature of what we do, it’s quite hand-to-mouth,” Wozencroft continues. “For Mike and I, the project is also a declaration of intent in a personal sense because we’ve both been experiencing some highs and lows in recent months.” Those lows are self-evident and are common to most of us, yet uniquely personalised to our own lives; the Touch highs include recent releases like Eleh’s brilliant Living Space, nurturing new artists on the label and Hildur Gudnadottir‘s success at the Oscars. Wozencroft justifiably calls it the “culmination of years of collaboration and shared ambition”. The idea of Touch going on hiatus just because normal life has been paused would thus have been a terrible, terrible notion.
“Between Mike and I it was kind of a Eureka decision to step ahead and do this,” he continues. “In effect, we pressed the switch in the third week of March and in no time we had a strong response from almost everyone we asked.”
A critical signifier of Touch has always been Wozencroft’s photographic accompaniment to the imprint’s releases, which presented a challenge for Touch: Isolation. “I had to think hard about how the Isolation series could be given a visual counterpoint, given the lockdown restriction,” he says. The result is a series of photographs of trees, leaves, pools, each one of something strangely quotidian yet now, thanks to the lockdown, mostly off limits; each one was taken on March 25 on Hampstead Heath’s West Heath and Golder’s Hill areas, just as the lockdown began.
“I’d been going to Hampstead Heath since being a teenager growing up in North London,” Wozencroft continues. “It was always a special trip, and so it was a challenge to make this familiar space reflect a certain unreality; the suspended state of beauty in the full gleam of the recent sunshine. But also its rarity and rawness as an urban environment in the current conditions. I was also remembering the damage of the Great Storm of 1987 – seeing the evidence of regeneration and a landscape transformed, and that sense of faith in the future.
“For me,” he concludes, “it’s about hope and detail, the hidden and its brilliance.”