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.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Further.