Obskure Magazine (France)

Photo by Craig Hewitt

In Interplay we have found a perfect balance between atmosphere and rhythm, as was the case with your very first records such as Metamatic. In the previous years, you have either focused on ambient experimentations (the work with Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie, the very ceremonious Cathedral Oceans) or on rhythms and dance (Shifting City). Here, we can find such a hit as “Destination” and a beautiful piece such as “Interplay” (I think one of your most moving songs since “The Garden”)

JF: ‘Well, thanks – Interplay was simply a response to a relationship breaking down. Trying to make sense of things afterwards, as we always seem to do.’

Have you tried to combine all the aspects of the world of John Foxx in this record?

JF: ‘Not consciously, but I guess it’s inevitable that something of what you managed to learn or discover over the years will be incorporated in whatever you make.’

In the recent years, we have felt a will on your part to come back to old analog sounds and synthesizers. Was it because you felt you had a lot more to do with this material?
Was there a will on your part to come back to what you did on Metamatic?

JF: ‘I still feel there is a lot more to discover by using the instruments and techniques of that recording – it is like a basic ‘roots’ album for me – If I were a jazz player I’d have to go back to New York occasionally in order to remind myself where I came from – musically and as a way of life. Metamatic can do that. I simply walk those London streets and listen.

Also – that generation of analogue instruments has just been revealed again to us, through much improved speaker technology. We can actually hear what they do now – so, further exploration can still yield rewards.’

What were the main instruments, synthesizers and machines you used on the new record?

JF: ‘The central instrument was a complete moog modular system from the 1960’s. A beautiful, hand-built, music generator.
The main drum machine was a CR78, with some Linn Drum. The keyboards were mainly Arp Oddessy – plus a completely brilliant, but cheap keyboard of Benge’s, that gave me ideas every time I touched it.’

The collaboration with Benge was surely a very fruitful one since your mutual interests for the archaeology of electronic music. How did you collaborate together? Was it 50/50?

JF: ‘Yes – Benge provided basic arpeggios from the Moog and other systems. These gave me ideas and rhythms that I could make into songs, then we both worked on further instrumentation and arrangements.’

You have also invited Mira Aroyo from Ladytron on “Watching a Building on Fire”. Why this choice to work together?

JF: ‘I always liked Ladytron – the very first new electronic band, they looked and sounded perfect – truly cool.
Mira and I did an interview together some years ago, when Ladytron was new. I found that she was knowledgable and intelligent – as well as strikingly beautiful. We remained in touch afterwards.
I really admire the way she works, especially with monosynths – You could easily make a marvelous album from those organic /electronic shapes she throws out. Also – she works in an instinctive way, one that I recognize and enjoy.
For me, that purity and enthusiasm is utterly vital – I find now that I can’t easily work with anyone who doesn’t have this.
It means they are a complete integration of instinct and intellect –a visceral intelligence – a real artist, in other words.’

And what’s your point of view on the recent electronic music scene?

JF: ‘I think it’s very exciting to hear all these new versions of electronic music emerging – there are entirely new variations, as well as remade, repurposed interpretations. I love moments of convulsion- and this is one.
There is a fascinating 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 there are many other new labels and artists across Scandinavia and Europe.
I’ve also been interested in how guitars are being used as sound sources, often cut up and reassembled – Lonelady, Seafeel and The Soft Moon are all doing this, in various ways.
We have more interesting music around now than ever before.’

On “Shatterproof”, you use your voice in a way you have never used before. However, you have chosen to start the record with it. Why this choice?

JF: ‘It makes a simple statement through sound. The voice becomes abstracted into an instrument – and at the same time concentrated and close to the ear in an almost unpleasant way. A threatening whisper. I was thinking about bankers when I performed it.’

And as far as singing is concerned, some compared you to a singer like Bowie. What’s your relationship to your voice today? Do you like to keep it pure, with not much effects on it, or on the contrary, are you still in a kind of experimentation process (like your work with echoes on the Cathedral Oceans)?

JF: ‘I’m not really a conventional singer – I have no real ability. I find I can’t sing until the sound in the studio, or a certain microphone texture , gives me something to sing with – then I can operate it all like an instrument. Only at that point do I gain any confidence.

I’m a bit like a bad guitarist who needs a fuzz box in order to play something interesting – or play at all.

But I must also say that I’ve never enjoyed listening to conventionally’ good’ singers – they can’t speak to me directly, somehow. A broken or inadequate voice tells you far more.

In Cathedral Oceans the voice is completely abstracted. When I was very young I sang in a choir in Latin Mass – and Benediction and Requiem – I realized that there was a subtle effect going on that actually had created that form of music. The building allowed us to harmonize with our own delayed voices returning from the walls.
Much later, I realized that the very form of chant – our most ancient form of music – must have been allowed by this process. It’s a very human response to architecture – a true architectural music.
Now we have digital echoes that can make notional architectural spaces of almost infinite dimensions. I wanted to explore these new possibilities, using what I’d learned as a child.
I love the idea of making continuities with ancient forms through new technologies. It’s very exciting to reach back by moving forward.

In the context of Metamatic and Interplay, the voice- and the sound of it – is used to tell a story, a little internal movie for the audience. I simply supply a context, then the listener re-contextualizes it instantly, using their own experience – so everyone can make their own personal movie from my small suggestions. One of the truly wonderful aspects of recorded, or transmitted, sound.

You have never hidden the fact that when you started your solo career, you were very much influenced by the writings of Ballard for example. According to you, what was the main influence on Interplay? What were the lyrics inspired by?

JF: ‘There were so many – Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a novel called Never Let Me Go, which has been made into a film recently. Previously, he also wrote another novel – The Unconsoled, which is the most marvelously surreal book I have ever read. It is the first book I have read that captures the true grammar of dreams.

These two books, along with London Orbital by Iain Sinclair, Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, and The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, supplied some of the basic contexts of the songs, which, like Metamatic, concern a man a woman and a city.

Another factor that seems appropriate to mention here – I’ve often been greatly affected by aspects of French music, literature and art.
Surrealism was so welcome when I discovered it, as a child, in the very grey late1950’s. Suddenly the world was a much more mysterious and complex place, full of potential adventures and magical relationships. I have never forgotten this. It made me into a more complete human being. I also think it may even have kept me sane.
Then, at art school, I first heard the music of Erik Satie, and this has affected me all my life. A most important and far reaching influence.
His invention – of a dignified, romantic, fragile, vulnerable, restrained, sensualist minimalism – is always something I aspire to.
It profoundly affected the minimalist form of Metamatic, the music I made with Harold Budd, and the writing of The Quiet Man. Even that Metamatic image of the young man in the grey suit, was partly originated from Satie’s life, (as well as Duchamp and Magrittes).

I spent quite a lot of time in Paris in the mid to late 1960’s. I saw some of the political tensions that gave rise to the riots of 1968 and had friends who were students there.
One of the many things I got from that period was a new understanding of street fashion –and this is not as frivolous as it may seem – let me explain-

‘Le Style Anglais’ was popular on the streets of Paris then – it was a re-imagined version of classic English clothing.
I was greatly interested in this French revision of British clichés – corduroy trousers, Shetland sweaters, gabardine raincoats, the public school haircut, etc..
In England, these were terminally unfashionable at the time – and usually badly made as well.
I was completely surprised that French youth had chosen to revise them into something entirely elegant, yet practical.
I never forgot that lesson of ironic conversion – cliché into style through observation and humour. It was a demonstration of intellectual ideas and principles being transmitted entirely through undercurrents of everyday, urban life.
This principle continues to be useful in music and in visual arts – you can transfer and reorganize any set of elements into a different context and they will mean something entirely different to their source. If you can do this with some wit, you can have a powerful effect.

This also illustrated perfectly that there are several conversations or codes in simultaneous operation through all our lives, at any given moment – fashion, rumour, music, literature, visual arts, cinema, the street, etc –all capable of transmitting and transforming behaviour and ideas.
From that point, I tried to remain alert to even minute variations of these, and I always enjoy it if I can possibly contribute even a tiny element to their conversation.

Later, I reread The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin. A marvelous, experimental catalogue prompted by the arcades of Paris and very relevant to these conversations and codes.
I’m still reacting to it, and it has moved me on to recording a series of piano pieces. This starts from Satie, via Harold Budd and early radio pioneers, and is partly concerned with the strangeness and transformative effect of recording. The album will be called Electricity and Ghosts. But that’s another story.’

And since you are also a graphic designer, what color and what kind of design would you choose for Interplay?

JF: ‘I was pleased to let Jonathan Barnbrook do that – he came back to us with some beautifully colourful imagery that echoed the 1970’s and is also futuristic. He’s probably the best designer operating in Britain at this moment, so I was very glad when he agreed to work with us. He understood what we were doing completely.’

Have you kept some contacts with artists of the first wave of electro-pop music? People like Gary Numan, Anne Clark, etc.

JF: ‘ Yes – I recently had a very warm email from Anne – I really respect her, and her work. I learnt a lot from that record. She has always maintained such a true, uncompromised spirit.
I see Gary every few years – it’s a distant but oddly constant relationship, based on mutual respect. I think he’s a true star, he certainly made some of the very best music of that era- by stripping away everything that was unnecessary. It takes deep intelligence to be able to distill an entire genre in that way.’

Have you still some contacts with former members of Ultravox?

JF: ‘I’m still working with Robin Simon, who I think is one of the best ever guitarists – one day he will be recognized as someone who invented entirely new methods of playing, by integrating delays, effects and recording techniques, intuitively, into a single, living sound, and rejecting all cliches.
Every band on the planet has – mosly unknowingly – been affected by him. I hear it on almost every new record. It really is incredible, that completely unacknowledged influence.
In perhaps another thirty years, people will be able to trace what he really did, and see how seminal he actually is.’

What’s your point of view now on the albums you did with them and what they did after?

JF: ‘I think we evolved a language of our own over those first three albums – and accidentally became the first New Wave band, as well the first British electronic band.
This seems to have set a pattern for later musicians across the spectrum – from seemingly unconnected bands such as U2, to Depeche Mode and New Order, then on to Franz Ferdinand and Radiohead – and beyond.
I still hear elements of those recordings in new bands today, and those albums seem to be referenced by each new generation.

Another, more subliminal reason they might remain interesting also occurred to me recently – they do illustrate a real journey, or story (which, by complete coincidence resembles a classical, three-act play).

First you have this rather reckless and confused spirit setting out, leaving home on a sort of naïve adventure.
Next, everything climaxes in a kind of violent, howling dissonance. It seems everything must be willfully destroyed – ripped apart in anger and despair.
Finally, all the conflict becomes reconciled into a new kind of music – a new beginning.
Of course, it’s all completely unintended, yet oddly satisfying. And it’s true.’

What’s the best and worst memories you keep of your pop career in the eighties?

JF: ‘Best – recording Metamatic and The Garden.
Metamatic – this was in 1979 – because I worked with Gareth Jones and remember we were both conscious of breaking new ground during the recording, but never sure that anyone would even want to listen to it.

The Garden – because of the playing between Robin and Duncan Bridgeman – especially the solo on ‘Walk Away’ – which literally made my hair stand on end when I heard Robin play it. Then Duncan went in to play along with him. I remember that solo manifesting itself in the room like a luminous, three-dimensional object. It was alive and moving and changing shape. Recording just doesn’t get better than that. The chemistry was entirely perfect in those moments.

The worst was appearing on television pop programmes – The only time I enjoyed that sort of thing was an interview with Giles once or twice – he knew what was going on better than anyone else, in England or Europe.
Then there was a strange, journalist-led advent of Perfect Pop in Britain – which I admit has some foundation, but completely discouraged what I actually love best – imperfect pop – pop that has been up all night and missed the train. Mistaken, naïve, gloriously inadequate pop. Then came British soul –and that really was the end.
Thank God for Acid House in 1989 – it rescued the entire scene from oblivion by theory. We suddenly had a future again – and here it is.’

 

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011 MEDIA