Connect Until Connected: An Interview With Komputer (2011)

Komputer – Simon Leonard & David Baker. Credit: Angela Hayward

In the history of Mute Records, David Baker and Simon Leonard are legends. From their early releases as alternative synthpop unit I Start Counting, through the weird sampleadelic techno hinterlands of Fortran 5 and onward through the retrofuturist electronics of Komputer, Baker and Leonard have been a consistent presence on the label’s roster since 1984.

The duo will perform a rare live date on Saturday 30 November at Electrowerkz in London as part of TEC006, curated by our friends at The Electricity Club and Cold War Night Life. Ahead of their return to the stage, we are reposting a 2011 Documentary Evidence interview with David Baker that’s been offline for years, and which was originally published to coincide with the release of their compilation album, Konnecting.

Simon Leonard and David Baker have been associated with Daniel Miller and Mute Records since 1984, releasing their first two albums – My Translucent Hands and Fused – on the label under the name I Start Counting. They would then move in a more dancefloor-oriented direction for their next project, Fortran 5, before, as Komputer, releasing some of the most spine-tinglingly original retro electronica. Selections from the duo’s various Mute releases have been compiled on Konnecting, released as part of Mute’s new An Introduction To series. This interview was conducted by email with Baker, but all answers were received in the third person.

The duo met at Middlesex University when Leonard overheard Baker singing one of his own songs, ‘Playboy Girl’. ‘This led to chats about pop music,’ recalls Baker, ‘and soon the two were DJing at the college disco and doing the pogo occasionally.’ On one occasion, a particular selection, ‘Incendiary Device’ by Johnny Moped, earned Leonard a bottle of Newcastle Brown ale in the mouth and several broken teeth. I’m not personally aware of any similar incidents on their own future tours, but I guess there’s still time.

‘The name I Start Counting came from a book by Audrey Erskine Lindop,’ writes Baker. Lindop’s novel would be turned into the 1969 film of the same name which starred a sixteen year old Jenny Agutter. Agutter’s portrayal of a fourteen year old with sexual fantasies toward her far older stepbrother earned the film a moderate level of controversy. ‘It also relates to the punk habit of introducing songs with “1, 2, 3,4”,’ Baker continues.

Despite their friendship, Baker and Leonard didn’t form I Start Counting until the demise of Leonard’s earlier music project, File Under Pop, who released a solitary single (‘Heathrow’) on the Rough Trade label in 1979. ‘Daniel Miller had his address on the sleeve of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ single,’ Baker remembers. ‘File Under Pop contacted Daniel and met up with him in a pub in Hampstead. Simon and he became friends and Daniel recorded some songs with them which never saw the light of day. One was called ‘Connect Until Connected’. Another was ‘Small Hut’.’

The dissolution of File Under Pop led to Leonard and Baker working together and recording demos which they passed to Miller; I Start Counting signed to Mute in 1984, going on to produce a small but significant body of work starting with the subdued joy of ‘Letters To A Friend’ and concluding with 1989’s ‘Million Headed Monster’.

As they began to record demos for what may have become the third I Start Counting album, a growing dancefloor influence led to forming Fortran 5. Fortran was even then a defunct programming language, now more or less as lost as vestigial regional English dialects. Over their first two exceptionally diverse albums, 1991’s Blues and 1993’s Bad Head Park, Fortran 5 found themselves collaborating with all manner of unexpected contributors to produce quirky club-friendly fodder. ‘Rod Slater was one of our collaborators on Bad Head Park,’ Baker tells me when I ask him about Fortran 5’s ‘fun’ dimension. ‘He was originally a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. He’s related to a friend of David’s.’

‘We did some work with Neil Arthur on his solo material, and he did some vocals for us in return,’ explains Baker of Arthur’s contribution to the standout ‘Persian Blues’ from Bad Head Park. ‘Thrash and Colin Faver were introduced to us through Mute. We wanted Derek Nimmo to do vocals on the Derek And The Dominos song ‘Layla’ [on Bad Head Park] as the follow up to Sid (James) singing Syd (Barrett) on our first LP, Blues, and he kindly obliged. Miranda Sex Garden were going to be our stage dancers but when the tour fell through we found out that they could also sing.’

I ask Baker about the leftfield move into electronica’s nether regions with Fortran 5’s third album, 1995’s Avocado Suite. ‘We were given permission to be as experimental as we liked, so we were,’ is Baker’s simple response. When I ask about the dreadful bathroom suite the pair are seen relaxing in, he tells me that it was Leonard’s bathroom in Muswell Hill. ‘It’s now in the London Bathroom Museum,’ he quips.

Reacting against the musical Emperor’s New Clothes that was Britpop and its still blander entrails, Leonard and Baker went back in time to electronic music’s pivotal point, namely a certain ground-breaking band from Düsseldorf for Komputer. ‘We got as close as we could to doing Kraftwerk cover versions on The World Of Tomorrow,’ says Baker, referring to the first of Komputer’s three albums, release by Mute in 1997. I wax lyrical about ‘Looking Down On London’, its almost folksy wistfulness for the city balanced out by the more icy, clinical electronic backdrop. When asked about the origins of that track, the response is typically understated. ‘We both lived on hills in London,’ says Baker. It makes complete sense when you think about it.

The World Of Tomorrow was followed by 2002’s Market Led and 2007’s Synthetik, before the duo mostly disappeared from view, returning with a celebrated live set at Mute’s Short Circuit festival in May 2011. Selections of their extensive tenure with the label were presented together in the August of that year as Konnecting, one of a brief series of artist compilations that saw the newly-independent Mute licensing tracks back from EMI.

I ask Baker what’s next for the duo following the release of Konnecting. ‘We have a live set ready to go,’ Baker tells me. ‘If someone will give us a gig,’ he adds. The prospect of a career-spanning series of concerts similar to their set at Short Circuit is an exciting prospect to say the least, so if there are any promoters reading this please, please, please make this happen.

Tickets for TEC006 can be purchased here.

Originally published 2011; edited 2019.

Interview: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Yeasayer (Clash feature, 2019)

Yeasayer‘s fifth album, Erotic Reruns, was released today via their own Yeasayer Records. The LP saw the trio of Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder returning to the live compositional style of their earliest releases, taking their inspiration from 70s MOR, personal relationships and the prevailing US political environment.

To coincide with the release, I spoke to the band’s Anand Wilder for Clash about the genesis of the album, leaving the comfort blanket of record labels behind and the necessary tensions within this enduring New York group.

Read the Clash interview here.

Buy Erotic Reruns from Yeasayer’s website.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash.

Interview: Stubbleman’s Pascal Gabriel on the making of ‘Mountains And Plains’

Pascal Gabriel – Stubbleman. (c) Pippa Ungar

“I had a plan, and that plan was simply to be inspired,” begins Pascal Gabriel. “I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but I was certainly feeling bored of pop, and bored of the tricks I’d learned. I wanted to unlearn all of that.”

For Gabriel to confess such a disdain for pop music at first sounds like he’s biting the very hand that has fed him for the best part of thirty years. From his pioneering work with samplers on tracks like ‘Theme From S’Express’ by S’Express and ‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb The Bass, Gabriel went on to write and produce countless pop hits, from Debbie Harry to Kylie Minogue to Will Young to Dido, and a cursory glance through the record collections of anyone who bought into pop music over the past three decades is highly likely to yield more than one Gabriel songwriting credit.

If that’s the Pascal Gabriel you think you know, his album Mountains And Plains – released last month by the legendary Belgian Crammed Discs imprint under his Stubbleman alias – represents an altogether unexpected proposition. Stubbleman was the nickname that the staff at Gabriel’s future wife Pippa Ungar’s Carnevale restaurant gave the unshaven patron that would generally turn up each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, evidently smitten by the owner. It immediately suggests something entirely distinct from Gabriel’s work in the pop field; something much more experimental; something altogether hairier.

Mountains And Plains is a quietly euphoric instrumental travelogue written by Gabriel while journeying across America from New York State to California. Its eleven geographically-informed pieces slot neatly into an electronically-infused modern classical canon, while also sounding only ever of themselves. They veer from wide-eyed wonder at America’s bountiful natural beauty to the ceaseless, intoxicating hum of downtown Los Angeles, containing musical gestures that are simultaneously serene and violent.

It is, in essence, the sound of a producer letting go of his inhibitions and moving in a new and rewarding direction.

Gabriel and his wife started their road-trip from the east coast of America to its most westerly points in October 2016. In among their luggage were two Brompton fold-up bicycles for exploring, a MacBook loaded with software synths, a small keyboard, a portable digital recorder and microphone (known as the Hairy Guys) and a playlist of eclectic music influenced by the trip they were taking.

At the start of the trip, the idea for what became Mountains And Plains hadn’t yet presented itself; the only thing Gabriel knew was that he wanted to do something that took him many thousands of miles away from his pop background. “I’d always loved American music,” he says. “Things like Memphis-based soul, stuff from New Orleans, jazz music and so on. I thought the trip would recharge my batteries and maybe something good would come out of it. As it progressed, I realised it was really working, and lots of great things were starting to emerge. Suddenly I had this little seed of an idea, and it got watered and it grew as the trip progressed. Just after we got to Central Texas, and then by the time we got to New Mexico, I had loads and loads of ideas.”

The concept that emerged was simple, but highly disciplined: using the Hairy Guys – a Sony PCM-M10 recorder with a Sony ECM-MS957 microphone, each equipped with a rumble-reducing windshield – Gabriel would capture the sounds of the natural environment in whatever places they’d been to that day and then write music in response to what he’d seen and heard. “We’d arrive somewhere, we’d have dinner and we’d probably be a little bit tired from the driving. We’d just hang out in town, walk round, and then I’d go home and faff around for an hour or maybe more. If an idea came to me, I’d work on that a bit more, and then if it didn’t I’d just go to bed. Generally, I would try and find an upright piano to play and sample, if there was one, really just to get an idea going. They were all sketches, basically. They weren’t finished pieces, but the melodies, the basic construction and the arrangements, were all written while we were on the road.”

Gabriel never really struggled with the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. “It’s definitely easier to write if you experience a lot of incredible views and panoramas,” he reflects. “That’s probably why maybe some of the New Mexican and southern Coloradan days were so inspiring, because the vistas were just so incredible. In contrast, Texas is a bit flat and boring. I had to make musical decisions about what was working and what wasn’t working, regardless of the places that I loved. Some places I loved more than others. I mean, Memphis was an incredible place, I really loved it, but no piece made it from Memphis.

“It was scary at the same time as being liberating,” he admits. “For pretty much all of my musical career I’d been working with someone else, so I’d be able to turn to that person in the studio and go, ‘What do you think?’, and you’d get feedback and encouragement back. But with this project I was having a conversation with myself. I’d go, ‘What do you think Pasc?’ and sometimes I wouldn’t know the answer. Back when I still smoked, that’s the point where I’d have gone and had a cigarette and tried to figure the song out, but because I don’t smoke anymore, when I was making this album there was lots of cups of tea and walking around the block. It was a bit like Magritte: every morning, his wife would make him a lunchbox of sandwiches, and he’d go out of his front door, walk round the block, come back to his front door and go upstairs to where his studio was in the attic, and he’d do exactly the opposite in the evening. I did that a few times when I was writing this album, because I wanted to have the cigarette break, just without the cigarette.”

Aside from having someone to turn to and bounce ideas off, Gabriel admits that producing the tracks at his studios in London and France also presented unique challenges. “It was a bit more difficult, because, as a producer and a pop writer, I was very much inclined to think, ‘Let’s go really big. Let’s go Sigur Rós on this and bring on the strings!’ I realised that I needed to set myself parameters. With any project I’ve worked on, I always write down what I call the Ten Commandments – the rules of the project. It’ll be things like staying minimal, using short reverbs, smooth bass and so on. I like to think that it stops me from getting lost. I can break those rules, and that’s okay, because I’m breaking them with intent. It just limits your framework, which I think creates a kind of coherence to the work.” His Commandments for what became Mountains And Plains included phrases like ‘purposefully unrefined’, ‘minimal dynamic shifts’, ‘frame a place and a moment’, ‘sound as a memory’ and ‘say much with very little’; in aggregate, those rules have given the album the fragile, transcendent, impressionistic tone it possesses.

One manifestation of those parameters Gabriel wrote for himself was that the album would not use strings, even though their inclusion would have perhaps been entirely logical. “I love strings, and I think that there’s wonderful, wonderful music made with strings, but I just didn’t want any on this album, because I thought it would be too easy,” he confesses. “When you use strings they glue everything together, and I just wanted space. And if I didn’t want the space, I didn’t want strings to be there – I wanted something else to be there.”

Griffith Park. (c) Pippa Ungar

Nevertheless, true to his mantra that rules can also be broken, Gabriel did add a string passage to ‘Griffith Park’, named for the landmark observatory building on Mount Hollywood that looks down on Los Angeles, a site beloved by film directors, and an important backdrop for James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. A frantic string arrangement was added to the track, designed to evoke the waking LA dawn visible from the observatory’s commanding – yet tranquil – vantage point, but in the end Gabriel reverted to his firm desire to leave the strings out. “There’s probably as much music on the album that you can hear as there was that was rejected,” he explains.

During the course of the road-trip, Gabriel accumulated some forty sketches, a testament to how excited he was by what he was experiencing each day. Sometimes his Hairy Guy recordings would feature in the tracks with prominence; on other occasions they’d be processed, stretched and altered, providing a kind of imperceptible resonance alongside Gabriel’s synths, guitars or toy drums. “On each piece they were a little bit fiddled with,” he says. “I would generally filter the rumble, otherwise you’d get this droning sound which is pretty annoying on recordings of the waves, for instance. On ‘Piety Wharf’, which is the last track on the album, it was a mixture of both processed and unprocessed field recordings from an area of New Orleans that we really liked. There’s birds, which were some of the field recordings that were there, and there’s also a kind of sound that’s also the atmosphere slowed down and stretched a lot to make the length of a recognisable note. I synced that up to the piano part, so then it’s almost like a ghost piano part behind the piano. I think it gives that melody a kind of underwater quality.”

Fourteen of the forty tracks were mixed by Gabriel with his friend Gareth Jones, but only eleven feature on Mountains And Plains. Gabriel remains unconvinced as to what he should do with the remaining mixed and unmixed pieces, namely whether they should be given away as free tracks after an unspecified period of time has elapsed, or simply left gathering digital dust on his hard drive, never seeing the light of day. “I don’t like to go back too much,” he muses. “The ones I rejected – they bore me already. It’s hard to kill your babies, but for me they devalued the others, even though some of them were more complex, or more grand, than the ones we kept. For instance, ‘Great River Road’, recorded along the Mississippi, is three chords repeated at different intervals, but it has something about it that’s special. And the others just didn’t quite have that.”

Mountains And Plains navigates us through some of America’s most incredible landscapes, along the dramatic Californian coast, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, across the unforgiving barren plains of Texas and beyond, following paths cut by America’s earliest inhabitants and new roads built to replace older ones which are left unused, abandoned and hauntingly visible from the modern freeways. Each piece was accompanied by suggested reading material that Gabriel had used when he began researching his road-trip – the poem that appends Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (‘Sea: Sounds Of The Pacific Ocean At Big Sur’), socio-geographic maps by Rebecca Solnit, books of Ansel Adams photography, books on trains in America. Alongside the sounds he had recorded and the images he accumulated, these books added another evocative input to the moods of these pieces.

At times those moods can be uplifting, at others there seems to be a certain disappointment in the tone that Gabriel presents. “I’m quite a melancholic person,” he explains, “but I find joy in melancholy as well. I am genuinely a positive person, and I don’t revel in the past. As with everyone, some things upset me and some things touch me, but I always try to think that there is redemption, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t an easy ride for most people, especially in some of the poorest parts of America that we visited, like Alabama. I’ve only just started to analyse it now, but if I go back to my pop work, things like the Peach album, there wasn’t that many tracks that were completely euphoric. There’s always been a little bit of a questioning quality, and I think it’s the same in this project.”

“My guideline for making music is ‘Do I like it or not?’,” he continues. “In the past I’ve worked with people who say ‘Would the A&R guy like this?’ or ‘Would the record label like this?’ or ‘Will the publisher like this?’ I can’t do that. I’ve never been very good at doing that. I can’t work by formula. I just work by feeling. That’s my compass when I’m making music.”

Stubbleman – studio with cat. (c) Pippa Ungar

Pascal Gabriel will perform the tracks from Mountains And Plains at London’s Purcell Rooms on November 20, with support from Simon Fisher Turner. Not a seasoned live performer, Gabriel was faced with a difficult decision over how to present the Stubbleman tracks. “I didn’t want people to look at me too much, and so I didn’t just want to go onstage with a keyboard and a laptop. But on the other hand, to perform these pieces like they are on the album, I’d need six or seven musicians, maybe even more. I obviously physically can’t play everything myself at once.”

Instead, Gabriel alighted upon a novel idea, but one that, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates his firm commitment to the Stubbleman project and its music. “I’d heard about this guy in Berlin who designed little MIDI-to-voltage boxes,” he explains. “The boxes fire up little electric motors, and that pulls a hammer down. You give it a little impulse, it pulls the hammer down, and it’ll hit whatever instrument you attach to it.”

Gabriel spent most of summer 2018 in his shed in France building a number of instruments using these motors, each one housed in an old-fashioned hard trunk Globe Trotter suitcase, which will play alongside himself, a bassist and other musicians at the Purcell Room show. “I’m quite good at DIY,” he says, modestly. “I enjoyed making them. I bought a job lot of piano hammers from the States to get me started with a first set of vibraphones, and then I decided to make another set, this time with xylophones.” Because of their construction, and the space available to him within the Purcell Rooms, the instruments can be spread out across the stage, rather than being confined to a specific place. The result is nothing short of a theatrical, visually interesting means of presenting Mountains And Plains, somewhere between the primitive punch-card automated music of Victorian fairgrounds and the elaborate, often audacious work of Luigi Russolo’s Futurists.

Stubbleman – live rehearsal, April 2018. (c) Pippa Ungar

Talking to Pascal Gabriel and being caught up in his enthusiastic interest for this entirely new direction, it would be tempting to think that he’d throw himself headlong into other road-trips across other countries, repeating the approach taken on Mountains And Plains. Nothing could be further from reality right now. A return to pop writing and production isn’t on the cards, however.

Instead, he has taken his enthusiasm for road cycling and used that as the basis for his next project. Titled 1:46:43, his next Stubbleman album will be an auditory evocation of his best time on the punishing Mont Ventoux in Provence. “It’s very selfish,” he laughs. “It’s not a bad time. It’s an acceptable time. I’d like to beat 1:45 but I’m not sure I’ll do it this year.”

Not for Gabriel, however, the twee concept album approach taken by Kraftwerk on Tour De France Soundtracks; instead, he used the various statistics about his performance recorded by his on-bike computer – heart rate, cadence, gradient and speed – and converted that data into four modular synth sequences derived from the length of his climb to the end of the route up Ventoux.

“You could do it on any mountain, really,” he says. “Like the US road trip Pippa and I did, it’s another journey. With this, you really push yourself to the limit, and every corner becomes an entire state, if you compare it to my current album. Essentially it’s going to be made up of different events along the climb that inspired me differently, and themes that reoccur through the whole thing – for example, something that evokes the feeling of your legs being completely dead and like you can’t go on! I can write themes for those kinds of feelings and then bring them in at different points.

“To me, it’s the same way as how Max Richter’s Sleep is made up of lots of different elements,” he continues. “It’s not a single piece. For example, there’s a few times on the climb up Ventoux where you have these very sharp turns, and I can write for those events, and allow them to repeat at different points during the whole piece.” I’m treated to a brief snippet of this work in progress as our interview concludes; at this early stage the first gestures of what will become 1:46:43 are inextricably recognisable as being Gabriel’s work, but are entirely different to the album he’s just released.

Mountains And Plains, the forthcoming live show and his new work all find Pascal Gabriel enthused and enlivened in a way that he recognises he hasn’t been for some years. “I’m really fired up right now,” he agrees. “I’m mixing different artforms and I find that really interesting after years of observing other people doing interesting things in other places from the pop world I was in.

“When I first came to London in the late 70s I mixed with lots of people from St. Martin’s College Of Art,” he recalls. “I always loved the free thinking they brought. I came from a small town in Belgium and when I came to London and I hung around with them, it was like everything was possible. They were great artists that went on to do many, many brilliant things. I’ve always wanted to do something more artistic, but, over time, pop became my raison d’etre. So what I’m working on right now is a very, very liberating thing for me.”

Mountains And Plains by Stubbleman is out now on Crammed Discs and can be purchased from the Stubbleman website. Tickets for the Stubbleman and Simon Fisher Turner show at the Purcell Rooms on November 20 2019 can be purchased from the EFG London Jazz Festival website.

Stubbleman is published by Mute Song.

All photos used with the permission of Pascal Gabriel and Pippa Ungar.

Documentary Evidence album review: here

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

In Conversation: Barry Adamson (Rough Trade East, 7 November 2018)

Upon the release of his career-surveying Memento Mori compilation, I will have the enormous pleasure of talking to Barry Adamson at a very special Rough Trade East event on 7th November from 7pm.

Barry Adamson talks to Mat Smith about his 40 years in music, taking in his formative beginnings with Magazine, his time as a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, film soundtracks and his solo career, as a musician and composer.

This will be followed by a short set of songs from his new 40 year anthology ‘Memento Mori’.

After the performance there will be a signing where Barry will be available to sign his new album and items from throughout his career.

Tickets can be obtained through Rough Trade’s website here.

(c) 2018 Mute / Rough Trade

Complex Industrialist: Douglas J. McCarthy (interview, 2012)

I interviewed Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy in 2012. At that time, Doug was prepping his first solo LP, at that time intended to be called Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, but which eventually emerged as Kill Your Friends on Pylon later that year. My interview was originally accompanied by a promotional photo that Doug had supplied, but which the photographer insisted I removed. I’ve no idea now if this photo is the one she asked me to remove – if it is, I will happily remove (again).

One of the two most important electronic acts to emerge from Essex in the Eighties, Nitzer Ebb surprised a lot of fans by reforming in the 2000s, not just for shows as is the current money-spinning way for the record industry machine to milk a band’s back catalogue, but also to record new material. The trio of Bon Harris, Douglas McCarthy and Jason Payne that had recorded 1994’s supposed swansong, Big Hit, almost ten years earlier, came back together to record Industrial Complex (also abbreviated to ICP), an album which managed to complete the circle that Nitzer Ebb had started but never quite finished, returning them to the punishing electronic body music of their earliest Power Of Voice and Mute releases. With Nitzer Ebb now on downtime after a couple of intense years of touring, including a powerful slot at Mute’s Short Circuit festival at The Roundhouse in London last year, Douglas McCarthy has recorded his first solo album, Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me. The album is due for release in April 2012.

‘Last year proved to be a bit frustrating for me with a few projects and tours being stymied by situations, events or people beyond my control,’ explains McCarthy by email from Los Angeles on the origins of Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, ‘so I decided to take matters into my own hands. As it has turned out it was a fortuitous judgement call as, about six months after I started writing, we decided that we would take a year out from Nitzer Ebb. I also wanted to make music that was much more club based than Nitzer Ebb have ever done.’

McCarthy first moved to LA in the early Nineties, then spent some time moving round the country before heading back to England toward the end of the decade. ‘I initially came back to LA in 2005 to work with Bon on the reunion tour and then as the tour progressed and we started to work on new tracks it seemed sensible to relocate from London and work on the album that eventually was released as Industrial Complex.’ Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, however, was begun back in the UK. ‘My father was in the last stages of a very grim terminal illness,’ says McCarthy, ‘and so my wife and I spent a lot of time in the UK. Going out to various nights and parties like my dear friend Richard Clouston’s Cosey Club really reminded me of a lot of things from years gone by and played a big part in the approach to the album. After my dad died, my wife and I came back to LA where the rest of the album was written and recorded in a relatively short space of time. We worked in an amazingly relaxed way, which is a direct response to being out here I think. I actually achieved much more taking that approach.’

While details of McCarthy’s solo record are starting to emerge, ears are still ringing from the breathtaking, urgent fast-paced beats and classic syncopated basslines of 2009’s Industrial Complex, the release of which was promoted by two hard years of touring and almost 150 live shows. ‘It came about after I had recorded an album as Fixmer/McCarthy with Terence Fixmer,’ says McCarthy of Industrial Complex‘s origins. ‘We toured extensively and would always drop in one or two classic Nitzer Ebb tracks. Inevitably it lead those cunning promoters to start asking if Nitzer Ebb could actually do shows again. I emailed Bon and as we were both going to be in the Midwest we agreed to meet up in Chicago for a chat. All went well and we agreed to play a smattering of festivals in Europe. Then, so as not to just be sitting on our arses between events, we added club shows in between. As it turned out we play something like 75 shows in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, North America and South America. I had already moved from London to LA to rehearse and prepare for the tour so when we had breaks from touring, that was our home. We decided to fill the time with trying out some new ideas and, remarkably given our long break from the studio, it was fun, so we carried on in our own sweet time until we thought we had an album.’

‘In a lot of ways it was very similar to making Big Hit,’ continues McCarthy. ‘We would often start with a blank piece of paper, just evolving ideas in the simplest form as the mood took us – a bass part, a keyboard part, a percussion part, a guitar part, whatever was easiest to start an idea rolling. After that we would work on it for usually no more than a day, put it to bed and start the whole process again on something new. We carried on like that until we had over thirty tracks and then thought we better stop and pick the ones that would be a good collection for ICP. That’s the main difference, with Big Hit we really wrung the living hell out of the tracks before moving on to the next.’

The brittle Big Hit was preceded by Ebbhead, the 1991 album produced by Alan Wilder, recently of Recoil fame, with whom the trio of McCarthy, Harris and Payne performed on stage at The Roundhouse last year. In 1991 Wilder was the musical backbone of Depeche Mode, the other important electronic band to emerge from Essex in case you were wondering. ‘We toured with the Mode for the second time on the Violator album tour in North America in 1990, which was a life changing experience for all and sundry. On the tour we discussed working with Alan upon our return to the studio. The plan was for him to co-produce with Flood, which worked out perfectly. We approached Ebbhead this way because we saw how well these two could work together on Violator and wanted a more ‘musical’ approach to the songs, which is really at the core of someone like Alan as he is classically trained. The combination of that with Flood and Bon’s fantastic knob-twiddling, and my desire to ‘sing’ more, were all part of the evolution of that album.’ Ebbhead showcased a new, tortured emotional depth for Nitzer Ebb, even if it was obscured by the lurid dayglo colours of the album’s bright yellow sleeve.

‘We started as school friends who enjoyed skateboarding, music and drinking cider,’ recalls McCarthy of the halcyon youthful days from which Nitzer Ebb would eventually emerge. ‘Musically, we took our influences from a fairly eclectic array of artists and styles – Forties jazz, Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, glam, disco, punk and the post-punk scene that was emerging as we were starting to go out. Bands like The Banshees, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate, The Birthday Party, Neubauten and Malaria! were all playing live shows that we would go to. We were also listening to Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, Fad Gadget, The Human League, Abwärts, Virgin Prunes, Soft Cell and The Normal among many more.’

Nitzer Ebb signed to Mute in time for the release of their first album, 1987’s insistent That Total Age, which was produced by Daniel Miller. ‘We were very aware of Mute and Daniel Miller of course; growing up in Essex with Depeche down the road in Basildon meant it was a no-brainer. Once we had signed Dan took me and Bon over to Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin to remix ‘Let Your Body Learn’ with Gareth Jones. It was our first trip to Berlin and at the airport we ran into Diamanda Galás, who was in the process of moving there so we all took pieces of her luggage as she had a mountain of stuff and had a very amusing flight getting told off by the flight attendants. It was like being Daniel’s naughty nephews on a weekend cultural break.’ Of their former label head, McCarthy has nothing but high praise. ‘Daniel has always been full of fantastic ideas, some more fantastic than others, but he never shows any diminished excitement about a project even, as it often does, when it gets tough.’

As the interview began to wind up, it seemed appropriate to ask McCarthy about the pronunciation of Nitzer Ebb, a debate which has seen fans take two sides, those who call the band Night-zer Ebb and those who prefer Nitt-zer Ebb. McCarthy is ambiguous as ever. ‘To be honest it started off as Night-zer but after decades of Nitt-zer I slip between the two.’

Originally posted; re-posted 2018.

(c) 2012 MJA Smith / Documentary Evidence

VeryRecords: Reed & Caroline – Hello Science Interview (2018)

Ahead of the release of Hello Science, I caught up with Caroline Schutz and Reed Hays to talk about identity crises, science (duh, obviously) and dealing with demands for royalties from daughters. The interview was published today on the VeryRecords website here.

Hello Science is available to purchase at the VeryRecords website, or from the merchandise stall if you happen to be Stateside and watching Erasure on tour

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for VeryRecords

Electronic Sound Issue 43

Issue 43 of Electronic Sound is now available, and this month’s magazine & 7″ bundle includes exclusive tracks from the Radiophonic Workshop, the beneficiaries of a major in-depth feature this month.

For this issue I wrote a short introduction to the music of Ratgrave, whose jazz / hip-hop / electro / funk debut I mentioned in The Electricity Club interview, and who I expect I’m going to be banging on about for several months to come. Their self-titled album is released at the end of this month and it is a wild, untameable beast of a fusion record. I also interviewed Norwich’s Let’s Eat Grandma for this issue about their second album, which sees childhood friends Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton taking their curiously idiosyncratic music in a squarely electronic pop direction, complete with analogue synths and production nous from Faris Badwan and SOPHIE. We also had a god natter about the merits of rich tea biscuits.

In the review section I covered Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase‘s mesmerising Drums & Drones collection, three discs of processed percussion inspired by time spent at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House; a hard-hitting gem of an album by 1i2c which I described as ‘therapeutic music for anxious robots’; the new album from 4AD’s Gang Gang Dance; another brilliant collaboration tape on the Front & Follow label by Jodie Lowther and ARC Soundtracks; the brilliant second album by Geniuser, one half of which is Mick Allen from The Models, Rema-Rema, MASS and The Wolfgang Press.

Finally, I reviewed albums by two projects by current members of WireColin Newman and Malka Spigel‘s second Immersion album since they reactivated the band in the last couple of years, and the third album from Wire guitarist Matthew Simms as Slows. Simms is a highly inventive musical polymath, as comfortable with a guitar in his hand as he is using analogue synths, found sound or pretty much anything he can lay his hands on. A Great Big Smile From Venus consists of two long tracks covering an incredible breadth of ideas, continually moving out in directions that are both unexpected and yet entirely expected when you’re familiar with Simms’s vision.

The review section also features Ben Murphy’s fantastically detailed review of the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, released earlier this month on Vince Clarke‘s VeryRecords.

The magazine and 7″ bundle is available exclusively from the Electronic Sound website here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound