Congratulations for Interplay. We at the magazine think it is one of your best albums ever along with Metamatic, The Garden or Crash & Burn.
JF: ‘Excellent – thank you.’
It’s truly an honor for me having the opportunity to do this interview, maybe for the first time in a Spanish magazine… I apologize in advance for my grammar mistakes. Thanks for your patience…
JF: ‘No problem.’
First of all, could you please let us know about your family and pre-professional background a bit?
JF: ‘Born in the industrial North of England – a landscape of derelict factories, motorway and mines between Liverpool and Manchester. Some beautiful but rugged countryside nearby. It rains a lot.
Father was a coal miner and a boxer. Mother worked in a cotton mill. I belonged to a big family, and so did everyone else.
All the kids played on the streets and in the factory buildings, many of which were empty and overgrown.
In the 1960’s there was a band on every street. I simply watched and listened and stored everything I saw.
Then I hitch hiked through France into Spain, to see Dali, Bunuel and Picasso’s country. Went to Ampurias, Barcelona, Figueras, Rosas, Cadaques, La Escala, and was fortunate enough to experience Spain before tourism changed things.
Then I went to art school and saw another world, and realized why I was so strongly connected to Europe. Art school was also where most bands begun.’
When and why did you get interested in music and decided to dedicate yourself to it professionally?
JF: ‘When I was in London, at the Royal College of Art, there was no art scene in England at that time – around 1974/5. You had to go to New York, as many friends did. But the music scene was really happening here.
I took a very idealistic decision to make democratic art involving multiple cheap objects –in other words make records, instead of making expensive unique objects, like paintings.
There was also an idea in Art School then, known as ‘Design For The Real World’ – my design was an electronic rock band. The Velvets plus Neu! for London.’
Ultravox were a pioneer band in many ways. They preceeded post punk, synth pop or even the New Romantic fashion. What do you think was the Ultravox’s main influence on British acts like Gary Numan and others?
‘Well, Gary has always been very generous about the effect of Systems of Romance – and of seeing us live at The Marquee. Several other bands have mentioned the same effect.
I guess it was the time –around 1977 – Punk had exploded, but everyone was looking for the next thing –for something less conventional.
We happened to be playing residencies in the Marquee. All we had were strobe lights and ruined amplifiers, plus all our equipment seemed to make beautiful, howling feedback. So the entire experience was extremely violent – smoke, white light and noise. I’m told people staggered out onto the street sweat soaked, half blind and deaf, then wandered around London all night.’
Why did you quit the band?
JF: ‘I wanted to explore what synthesizers and drum machines could do. I felt they were a truly important evolution. There was also big job to do, because you had to design a new language for them – so they could sound like themselves instead of imitating orchestras. And artistically – because you could make new kinds of songs.
It was also a chance that might easily fail – In fact it was almost certain to. So you couldn’t ask a band to sit around and wait, while you followed a blind chance like that.
The band were also impatient –they wanted so much to be successful in the charts. It was completely understandable.
I had no idea where electronics might lead, so I gave them the name and the identity, and switched on the machines. We both got what we wanted.’
Although Ultravox’s Systems Of Romance anticipated the British synth sound on LP, I wonder if the minimal Metamatic, your first solo album, was the first British synth pop album ever. I think Reproduction by Human League or The Bridge by Robert Rental and Thomas Leer (although this last one was a more experimental project) came out more or less at the same time … What was happening in cities like London or Sheffield in those days?
JF: ‘Besides London, in Sheffield and Manchester there was also a very early beginning of electronic music in Britain. Just a few people excited by similar thoughts and possibilities. These cells knew very little of each other at the time, but later evolved into a genuine movement.
I like all of them. I love the sound of all those early records. Cabaret Voltaire, Thomas Leer, Early Human League, Robert Rental. True Electropunk. It sounds like mysterious, labyrinthine industrial cities. It should be included in every capsule sent into space. Other civilizations need to know what this felt like.’
You’ve been showing since the early days a fascination with Central-European music and aesthetics (the hypnotic “Metal Beat”, with its harpsichord arrangement, is a true gem). Why this fascination?
JF: ‘I’d grown tired of bands imitating American accents when they sang. This bothered me, but I didn’t quite know why, at first.
Slowly I realised that what this inferred was a slightly humiliating acceptance of another culture’s unquestioned dominance. You are saying “This is better than anything we can do.”
We used to call these bands ‘Juke Box Bands,’ because they simply imitated the latest hit records. Lots of technical skill, but no imagination.
The question I asked myself was – what would our music sound like, if we had never heard anything from America? No jazz or rock or blues? What instruments might we use? What would the songs be about?
I thought this might lead to discovering our true voice, somehow. Metamatic is the result of that.
Where does it come from?
I looked at European and British music. We have a very rich heritage – from Chant to Bach, Satie to Stockhausen, electronics, film music, folk and experimental music. There are also lots of ideas incorporated into European films that translate easily into songs. There’s so much that is rich and powerful and still waiting to be explored.
Even our European trash pop can be brilliant. European electronic dance music is particularly interesting – an entire abstract conversation that is developing constantly. Every new record adds to the grammar.’
Which do you think are the main musical differences between blues (a sound you have consciously avoided in your recordings) and the European song? The track “Interplay” from your first album with The Maths is very “Satie-esque”, for instance.
JF: ‘Well, the difference is only a matter of style – the kind of instruments you use will dictate the sound and form of the music, to some extent. But essentially it is all still the music of the cities.
Its concerns are mostly urban and always from an urbanite point of view.
Chicago Blues addressed the same area and so did The Velvet’s take on New York.
But if you make a version of that which would be appropriate for Europe, At the very least I think you need to understand something of French chanson, Satie etc., German cabaret and electronics, Italian opera and film and church music, Spanish guitar and tango, plus British pop.
Then some appropriate elements from Chicago and New York – and Tokyo, too – because New York is basically a European city, it’s completely unlike anywhere else in the US, and Tokyo has a unique culture, with Western elements incorporated in unexpected ways.’
Has anyone accused you of “ethnocentrism”? (I don’t think you are “ethnocentric” at all; neither you nor BB King)
JF: ‘I hope not – it wouldn’t be at all justified.
Some of the first music to affect me powerfully was Black American music from Chicago – the Blues. The first record I heard that seemed completely transcendent was’ Smokestacks Lightning’ by Howling Wolf.
That method of recording – rough, distorted exciting beautiful still seems like an electrical moment caught in time – a magical act of capture.
It is still the way I try to record. That record taught me that things don’t have to be perfect in order to be wonderful. Imperfect is wonderful.
I first became truly excited by a visual performance of music by seeing Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, when I was a kid. At the same time, I was equally transported by Latin choral music in church and British folk songs that I heard a girl in my class singing, then records of Bach, then Tallis and Palestrina, then those Chicago Blues records followed by Satie, followed by Kind of Blue by Miles Davies, some recordings by Bernstein, then Ravi Shankar. Many kinds of music from many sources, and I find they all have equal importance.
I also listened to Spanish guitar music recordings when I hitch-hiked to Spain in the mid 1960’s. Much later, this found its way into ‘Europe After the Rain’ – I was gratified that this was successful in Spain – it felt as though that element had been recognized, even though I also realize this may be a coincidencel.
The most important studio technique I ever saw was West Indian Dub being made in the studio – Everything was taken out of the track except one single element at a time, so it could have maximum impact. This revealed the true power and beauty of each sound in turn.
I applied this as much as I could to Metamatic – that record was dubbed ruthlessly so each element might operate to its fullest potential. Metamatic is a Dub album.
So all kinds of music and sensibilities are incorporated into my music, even if they aren’t immediately obvious.
J.G. Ballard imagery is still also a recurrent feature in your work. “Watching A Building On Fire” from Interplay could be another example. Why has he been so important for you and other post punk musicians?
JF: ‘Because his work is intellectually violent and recognizably true. It also has what the Surrealists would have called The Beauty of Convulsion.’
Songs such as “Shatterproof” are musically amazing but the “plot” is really distressing and tense. “I don’t like your medicine”, “I’m not shatterproof”. What’s this song about? It reminds me sonically of Cabaret Voltaire’s Crackdown and Microphonies era…
JF: ‘I was thinking of international bankers when I sang it.’
“Evergreen” is really ace! In my opinion, one of your best and more catching tunes ever (along with others like “Summerland”). Is it an optimistic/dreaming (not nightmarish) song amongst the dystopian city images? A light at the end of the tunnel? It’s also got an “European” feeling to it.
Is “Evergreen” a yearning for long green “analogue” walks? (I think it is but only in someone’s mind and imagination). ‘Falling Star’ also seems to transcend human artificiality: behind the traffic lights a falling star…
JF: ‘Well – ‘Evergreen’ and ‘Summerland’, particularly, are about returning to a place that is now changed completely. An almost obsessive returning.
I used to feel the people I’d known might still be there somehow – the light flickers through the trees and all you need do is open the door…
I think this is in the nature of cities constantly changing – and of us growing older and moving on. But there are always these beautiful ghosts that linger.’
You seem to project a rather intellectual and exquisite image of yourself. Although we live postmodernist times maybe since the late sixties (conceptual art, installations, video, land art, etc), don’t you think that music and art today have become less “intellectual” in a way? Everything has to be “shorter”, “faster”, “fragmented”, “digital”, “wiki-cultured”, “emailed”, “non-physical”..
JF: ‘I hope there may be room for a few people whose currency involves ideas. When I was younger, these were the kind of artists who always interested me most.’
Could a composer of long pieces like Bach hit the charts today? :
JF: ‘Oh yes – we’ve had Monks, Nuns, Opera – and even John Cage’s 4’33 in the charts over the past few years.’
What do you think of the decreasing record sales? What about illegal downloading? Have people the right to get cultural products for free as some Internet surfers defend? (By the way: Spain is almost the world champion in illegal downloading). Recording studios and record shops are closing down. What’s the kind of adaptation the industry needs in order to survive?
JF: ‘We need to have a word with Apple.’
You’ve been selling records on Internet for many years: is the artist’s independence the only way?
JF: ‘Yes – until things become more intelligently structured for artists.’
Sakamoto told me a couple of years ago that the current approach to music is the same as a century back. Artists don’t sell records (an output that didn´t exist a hundred years ago) and so they need to play live more and more in order to make a living … Do you like playing live or do you prefer the studio?
JF: ‘I much prefer the studio, because that’s where ideas come to life – I guess this is because I began as an artist – a painter, so I feel at home in a studio, working on the material, watching it materialise..
Equally, I realize the value of playing live – it makes the music real, by operating in the present, as a shared social event, rather than on demand. It also gets externalized at a scale not possible in domestic surroundings.’
Why did you quit music after In Mysterious ways in 1985? Many great “post punk” musicians lost heart, hope, inspiration or whatever you call it by the mid eighties. What happened in your case?
In those times you weren’t interested in electronic music anymore. Why did come back to it more than 10 years after with The Pleasures Of Electricity?
JF: ‘The music of the mid eighties was so dull that many people simply lost interest. I’d long wanted to pursue the visual art side of my work, so I did just that for a while.
Then Acid and various forms of House music happened, around 1988. I recognized the techniques and electronics and the fact that there was a new underground scene. This is vital – no underground, no music. So things began to be exciting again. Especially when I found that people in that scene just assumed I was part of it anyway.’
Tell us a bit about your graphic work for books and other non-music fields. Do you have any present or future projects outside music? I think you are interested now in films (in 2006 you put music to some of the Weizcs-Bryan short movies collection)…
JF: ‘I’ve been working on a few films recently – one is a film of Iain Sinclair who wrote London Orbital, and some other films that may become part of the Tiny Colour Movies series.’
The images on Cathedral Oceans dvd are amazing, very haunting, quite melancholic (an therefore “European”) and ecstatic. I also like the ones included in your recent DNA album (I love ‘Kaiyagura’). Images and music form a very powerful combination (although great film makers like Luís Buñuel didn’t like soundtracks). What is the secret for that power?
JF: ‘The Cathedral Oceans images are made from antique sculptures – classical heads. The symmetry and proportions of these grow in power as they are enlarged. Bad images often become weaker with projection but these just grow and grow, so it is the power of those sculptors’ work that makes these images what they are, I simply altered their context.
As for DNA I think the filmmakers are the ones who made those tracks work with the films, often by not attempting to illustrate anything directly, but making some kind of parallel world to the music.
Oddly enough, it was the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona that gave me the idea to use the Cathedral Oceans images in this way. (The Gaudi Nativity facade only – I’m afraid I dislike all the later work that is not his).
I had long been intrigued by the way Gaudi incorporated almost classical figures into a marvellous organic web, sculpted in stone. The totality even manage to overshadow some of Rodin’s work. The effect is at once surreal, serene, rhythmic and lyrical. I think it is one of the most significant pieces of architectural sculpture in the world.’
Do you use those images in live shows?
JF: ‘Yes – Large scale projection is possible now, due to recent developments in technology. You can make a massive visual impact that also maintains detail and subtlety. I think we’re just beginning to discover what we can do. Jonathan barnbrook is doing some really innovative and hypnotic work, and it’s a privilege to have him with us – he’s one of Britain’s leading graphic artists. Karborn is right in there with him, doing some beautifully disorienting image play. A major force VJ.’
I’ve listened to “A New Kind Of Man” and at least sonically is a really breathtaking experience for those who love pure electronic beats (and great pop songs, of course)…Any plans of coming over to Spain with your show in the next future?
JF: ‘I’d like to. Spain is always a pleasure to visit – some of my formative memories are locked into that landscape. ‘
What does electronic music mean to you after almost 4 decades of research? Do you consider yourself a purist or think that analogue and digital are complementary goods instead? (Vinyl or digital?)
JF: ‘I’m easily corrupted. I’ll use anything to get results – it’s all about the sound.
I tend to work viscerally – if it feels right, it is right. Later on you can engage the intellect.’
Since the early eighties you’ve developed an interest in ambient/instrumental music (Cathedral Oceans, Translucence/Drift Music, Tiny Colour Movies, DNA, etc). What do you think is your contribution to this genre compared to people like Harold Budd or Brian Eno?
JF: ‘Really, I’m Harold’s apprentice – along with Satie, he taught me almost everything I know about this kind of music. I think it was really his initial conception, then it took Brian’s enthusiasm, perception and understanding, as well as Dan Lanois unique recording skills, to realize it all fully.’
I think you have a very personal voice but in recent times you’ve tended to use it more like an instrument (as with the wonderful Mirrorball with ex-Cocteau Twin’s Robin Guthrie) How do you consider yourself as a singer?
JF: ‘I’m not a great singer and have no wish to be – I always liked the singers who couldn’t sing in any conventional sense – Lou Reed, Dylan, Jagger, Tom Waits, Iggy. A cracked voice will tell you stories that a well-trained or obedient voice cannot. Perfection is dull. Obedience is dull. I prefer a voice to be more like a crackling phonecall from another world, than some opera singer’s meaningless perfection.’
Your lyrics constitute an important part in your work. The powerful images you build are not only musical or visual. Are they hard work for you or they come to mind more easily?
JF: ‘I’ve always written, ever since I can remember. Its what I do. Like breathing.’
Have you changed your method of writing with time or with technology? Do you see nowadays a less interest in melodies by groups? Are musicians “running out” of songs (or is this an unreal fear)?
JF: ‘That’s an interesting question. It seems that writing songs has become changed by writing over computer loops – this can make it difficult to change time signatures and chord structures. Sometimes I enjoy this monotony, I also enjoy something capable of shifting into more organic lyrical modes.’
Who or what are The Maths? Is this a one-off project or will have continuity?
JF: ‘It’s all Benge’s idea. I think he intends it to be a sort of Exploding Plastic Inevitable for London. All the rest of us are disposable.’
Is Benge’s (Ben Edwards) analogue synthesizer collection so big and great as people say?
JF: ‘Bigger. He’s got things that haven’t been invented yet.’
The sounds in Interplay are amazing, it comprises a wide range of them: electro, IDM, minimal, funk, etc… Interplay is also sonically a terrific record…How’s it been recording with Benge?
JF: ”Thanks – it’s all been great fun – and virtually effortless. Ben is so very good at controlling everything. Those machines will do anything to humiliate humans, but they just roll over when he walks in.
I always think of Benge as a kind of modern day Connie Plank – he has that same generosity, technical ability and desire for adventure. An entire scene is building up around his studio, with artists like Tunng, Serafina Steer and Hannah Peel recording there.’
Aren’t we returning more to the past than looking at the future with this minimal synth revival for instance?
JF: ‘I don’t think so – this seems more like a reappraisal by a new generation – just as, say the Rolling Stones and the Beatles did with American Blues and pop – it’s a primary influence that gets incorporated then developed.
I also think its fascinating to hear what each generation selects from the past to use as their new foundation – also what they reject. Then how they develop those things they decided to keep.’
So obviously you don’t think that everything’s been said and done around electronic music…?
JF: ‘Oh no – I think we are really only just beginning.
We still don’t know what digital really sounds like – we’ve only just begun to value analogue since it vanished – by appreciating things like hiss and tape noise and vinyl noise from records. So the true character of digital sound is still invisible to us. At the moment it is imitating previous analogue forms. Perhaps Granular Synthesis is the real voice of digital.
We don’t really know what is truly unique and mysterious about recording either – both visual and sonic recording.. It is so bizarre to try to capture chemical patterns from old sunlight on film, and simulated old moments in electricity and digits.
The more you consider those activities, the stranger they become, and the more it is clear that we do things from a non-logical base, even though, at the time, it all seems entirely logical to us.
For instance- it is even more bizarre to have developed a method of fixing sound waves by polarizing pieces of rock dust stuck onto a long strip of solidified oil. Then rewinding this to vibrate two pieces of cardboard.
Then we all hallucinate an entire world from these vibrations.
Don’t you think we are an odd species?’
Could you name some electronic acts that interest you now?
JF: ”Several new bands recently. From that electronic minimalist scene in New York – Xeno and Oaklander and Weird Records, for instance, and Lowfish in Canada.
In England there is Ghost Box and Warp and Burial. I also greatly enjoy Ladytron, and there are many other new labels and artists emerging across Scandinavia and Europe. Tara Busch is doing really adventurous things, and Serafina Steer made that nicely eccentric album with Benge. She has a truly beautiful voice and is also great, unconventional musician.
I also think guitars are now being used in new ways, often electronically cut-up, almost into abstraction – LoneLady and The Soft Moon are doing this, all in their different, but equally effective ways – and of course we can always add John Cage, Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and the Futurists.’
Interplay, the record and also the song, can be read as a tribute to the analogue philosophy, if you let me put it this way. The acceptance of error, mistakes, “unnoticed singularities” (using your words) and the ultimate defenselessness of man before technology despite his struggle to control it. Is this right? In hindsight, how do you regard Interplay in your whole career?
JF: ‘My entire career is a series of accidents. I think modern music is also a sort of accidents – a coincidence of several technological innovations with financial and social changes that allowed it all to happen.
So you end up simply feeling pleased to have been in the right place at the right time.
You find you appreciate everything – even the things that go ‘wrong’. You learn that ‘wrong’ can often be a misperception on your part. It’s exhilarating to discover that your ‘wrong’ is what was wrong all along.’
Maybe this is another obvious question, but you mention “cities” a lot in this interview (needless to say in your records). I would like to know why this fascination with cities and urban life. Why do you think cities are so intertwined with sound and music?
‘Well – most of humanity live in cities now, so perhaps we need to begin regarding ourselves as urban citizens and find out how to negotiate our new ecology. It’s a new form of nature – grey nature, and is only just beginning to manifest itself. I think new opportunistic forms of life will colonize it – and it will also alter us as fundamentally as living with the old form of nature did.
If we can make useful models of all that through art, we have a way of beginning to understand the process.’
Is some kind of stress necessary to produce good music?
JF: ‘Well, wouldn’t you agree that some stress is good for us? – and the relief from stress is also good, but as in all things, you need a balance.’
Please tell me know a bit about future plans. Your collaboration with film-maker Alex Proyas or your new album with Paul Daley…
JF: ‘Alex and I have been talking very loosely about a film. He’s got some ideas percolating. Paul is currently remixing.’
What’s been Louis Gordon role since your mid-nineties comeback? Do you still work with him?
JF: ‘Louis is great to work with – but there are at least four new albums to finish at present, so its going to be at least another year…’
You’ve been incredibly prolific during the past decade, what keeps you making music?
JF: ‘Fortunately I don’t easily run out of ideas. There’s still a very long list…’
What kind of music do you listen to these days?
JF: ‘Oh, It changes all the time. At the moment, Satie again. And some recordings I just made of empty rooms. These can be quite disturbing.’
Have you recorded any ghosts or something like that? In Spain we call it psycophonies. Are you interested in parapsychology?
JF: ‘This is a long story – so, if you have the patience, here we go:-
I was exploring the origins of modern media, such as Television, Radio, Telephone etc. and made some very interesting discoveries.
For instance, a surprising common factor in their invention is that it was partly motivated by a desire to explore the possibility of communication with spirit voices.
Spiritualism was a very popular concept when Logie Baird, Marconi and Graham Bell were working – in Britain these were the inventors credited with all those media. Here is a link to a BBC site, which details some of this. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4185356.stm
Scientific methodology was the way they assumed was suitable to investigate such phenomenon, because this was the period where great discoveries were being made by simple practical means, often in laboratories set up by amateurs in their own homes.
In doing this, they each made significant discoveries, which eventually led to the development of modern media.
(It is also interesting that we also use the term ‘medium’ to describe a modern technological communications process, when this was originally used as a term for someone who claimed to communicate with spirits).
All this coincided with another line of thought – I’ve long felt that we don’t really understand media – what it is, what it can do, how it is affecting us.
One small instance of this – we are surrounded by ghosts of the dead, yet we don’t think this is at all odd.
If I may explain: -
We can watch the image of Marilyn Monroe anytime we want to. She is made of light and electricity, she talks dances, sings, smiles, yet she has been dead for forty years, she is dust – yet she lives on. We all see her from time to time.
Now, what else is that but a ghost?
I am simply attempting to find some way of describing what is happening, so it can be seen better, so I can begin to understand such media processes, and their effects on us, more clearly.
Then all this merged recently with my interest in Erik Satie’s music and ideas, during the making of a set of recordings of simple piano music, recorded in my front room.
At first, I wanted all the sounds of the mechanism of the piano, and the sounds from outside the windows, to be audible.
During playback, it was fascinating to hear sounds I hadn’t noticed at the time –breathing, movement, even voices through the wall, from the neighbour’s house.
This reminded me of those ghostly properties of media and our lack of understanding of what media actually are, and how deeply they are affecting us.
It was also strongly reminiscent of some spiritualist séance, especially since these were often conducted in front rooms or parlours. (In Britain, this is the term for a room kept as the ‘best room’ for receiving visitors, also where the piano would be kept).
As an experiment, I began combining these piano pieces with other recordings made in various environments, including a machine left recording at night in empty rooms.
Some of the sounds and the stereo movements captured in this way are really startling. ( I won’t even try to explain or describe them until the recordings are released).
I also recorded white noise from an untuned crystal radio and slowed small sections of it, to obtain apparent words and phrases. It’s a method of examining the grain of sound – to find things buried inside it.
I guess the unconscious, plus our instinctive desire to connect random events and make patterns, both come strongly into play here.
Both of these seem well worth encouraging, since they equally apply to the way we comprehend music.
The recordings will be released later this year, and will be titled ‘Electricity and Ghosts’.
Since beginning these investigations, I discovered another artist working in a parallel way – Susan Hiller, who currently has an exhibition at Tate Britain, in London. http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/susanhiller/default.shtm
Her work acknowledges the importance of the inexplicable – its presence and purpose in human life, from an artistic and anthropological perspective – meaning a humanist, empathic, participatory one.’
Thanks, thanks very much for your time and, again, for your patience.
All the best (and hope to see you soon live in Spain or in London)
JF: ‘My Pleasure.’
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