I know that you like to view people as a superposition of interconnected personality layers. This ‘multiview’ should bring some logic to one’s personal history. In this interview, I would like to look a bit closely at your own layers in time. First – as a child playing in the wilderness surrounding the 50′s post-WWII Liverpool area. Maybe that was one of the reasons why Ballard’s work resonated with your feelings? Ballard was surely hit by the Japanese invasion in 1941 during his childhood in Shanghai.
JF: ‘I think that’s probably true – those early experiences and impressions surely shape a great deal of our basic personality. Industrial Britain in the immediate post war period was a very bleak place – but less so than Ballard‘s experience of Shanghai, where he and his parents and fiends were imprisoned and might have been shot at any time.
Our dilemmas were slower and longer, but not as immediately life threatening as those of other parts of Europe , or Ballards circumstances.
After the extensive bomb damage of WW2 British manufacturing industries declined, so we had two layers of ruins and abandoned buildings in the industrial north –then the coal mines closed, and the motorways were built, causing further disruption.
All this altered a way of life permanently and many parts of the north have never recovered.
As a teenager in 60′s you were a part of the mod movement. As you once mentioned, being in a band is like being in a gang. So what was your early gang experience? You were just twelve in the time of mods rockers clash in Brighton. What were you thinking of the 60′s rocker/mod rivalry, did you join later? I would compare it to a situation in 80′s Czechoslovakia – the animosity between metalheads and Depeche Mode fans (though there were some punks too). In some cases you had to choose your side or be beaten by both.
I was born in late 1948, so I was 15 when the mods and Rockers clashed at Brighton in 1964 (and other places around England). I didn’t join in any gang violence, but there were often situations where violence did occur on the street.
There was a constant threat of physical violence everywhere in working class areas in the North, especially around Manchester. This involved fists and boots – no weapons on the streets at that time. Things have changed now however, as society and media generally have unfortunately become much more cruel.
British youth can be very tribal and this allows a sort of primitism of alliance, which leads to violence between the various tribes. All this also gets entwined with football and is exported to other countries, as I’m sure you have seen.’
Then you studied at an art college. You became a part of a wider East London art community. Wikipedia says you were also hippie. Was it a hippie community? Alphaville in West Berlin were also a part of art commune, including painters and female music group. They read Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land (which is considered hippie Holy Bible), John Lilly, Timothy Leary and Lewis Carroll, also Crowley and even some rosicrucian stuff. What ideas were circling around in your art community.
JF: ‘I was a peripheral hippy from the late 1960’s. Initially I would go to the clubs and festivals in the remnants of my mod clothing, but gradually the hair grew, and the clothes changed. This was when I was at art school in the mid sixties.
By 1970 I was bored with the laziness of the hippy scene in England and realized it had become just another rather dull convention.
This was sad, since there still seemed to be so much potential in that psychedelic /intellectual/technological /art scene. It seemed to offer much in the way of imagination and adventure.
Meanwhile, it continued in Germany and other parts of Europe, and was not so complacent or compromised. This was the background that Kraftwerk, Neu!. Can, Cluster etc emerged from. A much more informed and intellectually curious environment than was often the case in Britain.
The East London scene was later, after 1982, when I moved into a warehouse in Shoreditch. This was a very old dark and derelict part of London, but right near the financial zone. Now it is very fashionable – lots of artists moved there in the late 1980’s because it was cheap but central, and this recivilised the entire area.
The artists there when I lived in the area were Gilbert and George, who were there before me. Then the newer wave of British artists and writers arrived – The Chapman Brothers and Tracey Emin and Jeanette Winterson, for example, but this was over ten years afterwards.
The books and ideas and artists work circulating during all these periods shifted a great deal, but a few constants may be worth identifying. These would be – William Burroughs, JG Ballard, Marcel Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism, Guy Debord, The Arcades Project, Situationism, French and Italian New Wave Cinema, Warhol, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Certain edges of science fiction writing, from Orwell to Philip K Dick, magazines such as Ambit and successive post-Ballard writers particularly Iain Sinclair, who was active throughout the 1960’s yet only emerged into the mainstream during the last ten or fifteen years.’
There were many art school bands back then. I like Adam Ant’s music, he also studied at an art school, Keith Richards too… Many of them did not finish their studies and started their music career. Adam Ant’s first album Dirk Wears White Socks came out two years after Ultravox! Did you meet someone of the well-known musicians in your school?
JF: ‘Not at my school – almost every town in England had an art school then. You went there if you could draw and you didn’t want to work in a factory. They developed their own culture from Beatniks, CND, the arts, and movements in Europe and America. Blues and Modern Jazz, Experimental Music and certain sorts of Classical music, especially Satie, were played there. It was a much more open and free environment – and it was often based on a certain dissidence and difference, as well as on a certain eccentric sense of style. That is why almost all the musicians of the period came from those places.’
During the era of your all-synthesizer debut solo album Metamatic you were reading Ballard and Burroughs. It is said that Ballard’s influence in post-punk music in general is wide and deep. Together with Joy Division, Gary Numan, Human League and Cabaret Voltaire you resemble to some Ballardian gang (in the sense of his post-apocalyptic American gangs). But what were the crucial influences while working on your first Ultravox! album?
JF: ‘Mainly Marcel Duchamp, Ballard and Burroughs. Warhol, and the poet Gerald Malanga’s idea of wanting to be a machine. The Velvet Underground, Films such as Last Year in Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, I also remember re- reading An Experiment With Time by JW Dunne. The Bauhaus movement in Germany, Yves Tinguely was also an influence – his self-destructive machines (Metamatics) seemed like an apt critique of both Western and Russian civilization at that time.’
Your father was a miner, I read he was also a boxer. You were wearing make-up, as can be seen on photographs. It was actually quite modest, compared to some other band leaders, but the boxer’s view might have been different (I suppose they generally more likely accept a black eye than eye shadow). How did your father react? My father, for example, is definitely homophobic. He is scared of my possible homosexuality to this day. My reaction was deliberately misty, I think he is ashamed even of this uncertainty.
JF: ‘Make up was no indicator of sexuality – it was simply a street fashion at the time – usually intended to make non-participants feel uneasy.
After all, the Stones and Glam Rock had done it all some time before. So by this time it was slightly ironic as well.’
Another layer of yours is the Catholic background. It is mirrored in your ambient Cathedral Oceans trilogy. Do you consider yourself a Catholic? What do you think of Marc Almond’s proud membership in Church of Satan? It is the same satanistic group, which made Marilyn Manson its honourable member.
JF: ‘I prefer not to be connected with any religion, though I feel no hostility toward them. I do feel it is important to maintain some sense of balance and perspective here. I feel I have some understanding of how and why they evolved and operate, how they have positively and negatively contributed to human evolution and development, and why they continue. I am also aware and wary of the political and social power of all the great religions and of the uses to which these powers can be put.
As for Cathedral Oceans – it uses that very old form of chant, in a modern technological context. Chant is far older than Catholicism in origin.
It has recently become possible to make reverberant electronic spaces of almost infinite dimensions, and I wanted to explore how the human voice might work in these.
I also feel that religion unconsciously co- opted some senses of the sublime and the infinite and come to regard them as its own, while I feel these are actually part of normal human experience and do not depend on any particular religion for their existence.
Some of these experiences can be accessed through singing – alone or with others – in huge internal or architectural spaces such as cathedrals or caverns.’
The question is why do we do it? Why does it have the effect of giving us that sense of simultaneous merging and dispersal that we seem to identify as spiritual?
Well, I think cathedrals are an evolution of caverns – they are man-made caverns – and we sang together in caverns long before we could build cathedrals. And one aspect of these caverns behaves in a very similar way to an ocean – they echo.
I think this human impulse may have some evolutionary origin related to, for instance, the way whales sing in the oceans- to communicate, find mates and propagate and also to orientate themselves in these vast places.
Since the greater part of our evolution occurred in the oceans, there must be millions of years of such evolutionary behaviors embedded in our pre-consciousness.
We can access these through the activity of singing in an environment that responds – large spaces will echo our voices back to us, but with sufficient delay to allow us to harmonize with our own voices returning from the walls.
Wales use the oceans as a great resonator, harmonizing with, or replying to the masses of sound they contain locates them in the great, eternal conversation that goes on at all times in there.
I think that is something of what we also encounter when we sing in our own huge spaces, and something of this continuity is what I wanted to acknowledge with those recordings in Cathedral Oceans.’
Now, to the layers of songwriting, do you usually start writing songs with the drum pattern and the base or do lyrics come first? I suppose that the songs on the Ultravox! album were created in a different manner than those on the Cathedral Oceans where you work with echoing.
JF: ‘I usually begin with a sound or an atmosphere I get when playing with the equipment, drum machines can be very useful in this respect. Then I refer to a notebook of potential titles and attractive phrases I keep. When these two fit together well, I have a song. It’s a very instinctive process. The meaning gathers, seemingly by itself.
The phrases come from overheard conversations, newspapers, films, books television, and my own little inventions.’
David Bowie and Gary Numan are among adherents of the cut-up method in the construction of their lyrics. Did you read some cut-up Burroughs? Did you use the Burroughs godfathered method in writing lyrics or making visual art? Is there any influence of Burroughs on your work?
JF: ‘Yes, yes – and yes. Its a useful process. All my work is to do with assembling and reassembling fragments. That‘s how we create ourselves, our personalities, too.’
You also said that to cultivate a selective deafness is essential for survival. That sounds Burroughesque enough, though you did not say exactly what you select (not) to hear. Are you selecting out for example the Time Person of the Year 2010 charade, or politics in general?
JF: ‘Oh, I think we all do this. My Grandfather used to pretend his hearing aid wasn’t working.
I think you especially need to ignore certain types of well meant advice. Leonardo Da Vinci advised artists – listen to everything said about you and your work – good and bad, then retain only what you consider useful.’
And what about selective muteness (which is quite common today)? I don’t remember you being political, though Ballard certainly was – for example in Hello, America! when bringing into collision the American icons Charles Manson and John Wayne. Burroughs’ The Wild Boys was also political, he later said things about Reagan and Bush they would not like to hear about themselves. Even Ian Sinclair criticized the ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher – but on the other hand, Steve Strange and Gary Numan were among her supporters.
JF: ‘I’m very interested in politics, but not in the way a football supporter is interested in football.’
I went to Armenia seven years ago and when I recently read that Ballard’s Hello, America! book (published last year in the Czech language), I realized that the harsh rocky country, closed factories and often incomplete houses with metal plate roofs fit very well his imagery. Would you recommend some Ballardian sites you found during your psychogeographical world travels?
JF: ‘Lots – Far too many to make any comprehensive description here – these spring to mind immediately:-
Towns in the US and Canada with no shops for thirty miles – the entire structure of life is predicated on driving.
Outer Manchester on the east side – a fantastic disheartening tangle of repurposed lost architecture – churches made into nightclubs then into fried chicken outlets. Completely insane. An architectural manifestation of a terminally disrupted society.
The outer western suburbs of New York. Immediately off the main highways are neighbourhoods solely occupied by various specific nationalities. If you should have to stop there you are instantly disconnected from any recognisable culture and become an object of local curiosity. You realise that all western cities carry these hinterlands, occupied by those who cannot yet move into the central cities. They are part of the ever moving tides of the cities.
Certain lost and forgotten restaurants in central Manhattan – patronised by clients of a certain age and social strata.
For instance, I recently visited one“ French“ restaurant whose clients were all around seventy years old and had obviously been clients for over forty years. The waiters were the same age, and everyone knew each other well. The cuisine had that aura of complacent incremental compromise over many years, that had rendered it barely edible, yet everyone there seemingly maintained an unconscious consensual hallucination of youth and innovation they must have first experienced when they were young, successful Manhattanites in the 1960’s. They seemed unable to see that the place was entirely worn out.
Hong Kong is a fast moving mix of western capital and chinese eagerness – a labrynth of modern and ancient values – fishing junks sail by the windows of the big hotels and fortune tellers co exist with bankers on the streets. All carefully maintained by the Chinese as a useful but alien financial zone. Island cities such as Hong Kong and Manhattan have an intense distillation of population, because space is finite, so only the most financially successful can retain occupation.
Spagetti Junction in Birmingham is an obvious one – An immense engineered tangle of intersecting motorways, over the rooftops of urban and suburban houses. All the fanatical optimism of the 1960’s urban planners meets rain and reality.
Sinclair is accurate about the development of British cities – they are constantly dispersed outwards and fragmented and disconnected in the process, accumulating a necklace of incoherence – and we all have to wear it.’
And which ‘Ballardberg’ do you find more interesting – that of Cronenberg or Spielberg?
JF: ‘Oh Cronenberg of course. But there’s still some way to go for Ballard. His Last book gets through some of the self made myths he enjoyed perpetrating. A distillation of all his work would yield a great film I think – a quiet man in a suburb cultivating all these ferocious visions.’
You said that in the late 70′s London was fitting the Ballardian frame. (Centuries ago it was fitting too, as significant part of the town burned down and, sadly, the Wren’s architect masterplan was never realized.) Today London is considered the city with the most cameraeyes in the world. Do you find it rather secure or scary?
JF: ‘Both. Orwell meets Ballard there – with Mervyn Peake thrown in.’
I suppose you are interested in literature dealing with or even based on London. You are also interested in myths. In my opinion Gaiman’s Neverwhere is good example of both, it is in fact artificial myth, city fantasy situated in London. It emerged as BBC series, then came the paperback and lately a comic book. What do you think of Gainman’s London?
JF: ‘I like his short stories best – the troll under the bridge and the cat that fights every night to maintain the home are masterpieces, I think.’
There was (and to some extent still is) narrowed selection of music
in former East-block countries. In some countries it is because of small market, but back in the 80′s the main reason was the Iron Curtain. The art was often simply labeled as capitalistic. Nowadays this cultural history gap can be partially overcome by personal interest and internet, which is how I discovered some great bands, for example Animotion, Altered Images, or short-living projects like Poeme Electronique, Soma Holiday, Haysi Fantayzee (by the way, I like the performance of Kate Garner in John Wayne Is Big Leggy)… Are you still listening to these bands or are you more focused on listening contemporary music?
JF: ‘I listen to everything as people mention it or I visit friends. Music is still part of the general conversation and things constantly get revalued and revised. But mostly I listen to new things. There’s such a lot happening at the moment.’
As an electronic music pioneer you had a strong impact on many bands, more or less known, including Ladytron and White Rose Movement, which I checked out only lately and find it good. Is there some WRM song you like? Have you heard WRM member’s Finn Vine fresh project Genuflex?
JF: ‘I haven’t heard Genuflex but I’ll check it out. I tend not to go for particular songs – I think my interest is really in what a band or musician mean – their image and stance are at least as important as the music, I feel. At least as much intelligence and social nous must go into this as goes into the creation of a particular song, and must last much longer. The real artwork lies in how any musician encourages the audience to view them.’
Recently, after years of being active as a visual artist, teaching visual arts at the college and also illustrating cover of Salman Rushdie book (among others), you restored your music activities in various collaborations. Your Roundhouse concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of your solo career was sandwiched by two DJs, Gary Numan and Jori Hulkkonen. You made the track Dislocated with Jori years ago. Is there any chance that you make a collaboration album with him? Or are you now working on the follow up of D.N.A. solo album?
JF: ‘I’m going to do some more work with Jori, I think he’s a really interesting artist as well as being one of the first to pursue electronic music in his part of the world. He helped create an entire scene there.’
I know that you collected short lyrical proses titled The Quiet Man and had the opportunity to read some of the texts at 14th Genoa International Poetry Festival in 2008. Which texts did you select for the festival and what was the audience reaction? Did you enjoy the festival?
I read ‘A Man Made of Shadows’ and ‘The Quiet Man’. The audience who understood English seemed to recieve it well. I was very pleased to be able to read at such an event, and I really enjoyed visiting Genoa. My father was there during the war (on an aircraft carrier) so it was great to walk where he had been as a young man and imagine how sinister and labrynthine those portside areas must have been then.’
Many front men tried acting. Have you ever considered acting?
JF: ‘Never. I don’t act.’