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29/02/2012 : JOHN FOXX AND THE MATHS - Nostalgia doesn't interest me

JOHN FOXX AND THE MATHS

Nostalgia doesn't interest me


29/02/2012, Philippe BLACKMARQUIS


"Nostalgia doesn't interest me." John Foxx's voice is deep and soft. I am very happy to meet one of my heroes just before his concert in Aarschot. Despite his legendary status as an artist, he is very modest, even shy, a true English gentleman. Listen here to the full interview (audio) or read the full transcript below.

 

John, thank you very much for this interview. First of all, I'd like to know what kind of show you're going to play tonight. Are you going to play music from the different periods of your career, with an emphasis on your last CD's?

John: Yes we're gonna play various periods but mainly, I think, things from "Metamatic" and a few also from "Systems Of Romance", which is the earlier album. And The Maths, of course, from "Interplay" and "The Shape Of Things".

Also some songs from your solo period with Harold Budd and Louis Gordon?

John: No, none of that. Harold's material is piano and instrumental and it doesn't work with what we are doing now, which is analog synthesizers. Because Ben is so interested in analog synthesizers, we decided that we would use this music and what we can't use we've sampled directly from the original tapes and then we play the rest, the melodies and all the other parts.

I had an interview with Howard Jones who said he had the same kind of problem. He had to resample all the tapes from the 80s to be able to play them live.

John: Yeah because the sounds are very specific, very analog and they were made by that kind of technology so it is important that we use the same technology to reproduce it. This is Ben.. (Ben "Benge" Edwards joins the interview)

I was just going to ask about the members of the bands. Maybe we could introduce them.

Benge: I'm kind of synthesizer enthusiast..

John:.. and expert!.. (laughs)

Benge: I've been interested since the early 90ies when people were throwing these old pieces of equipment away. I started collecting stuff and putting together my studio and I met with John 3 years ago I think coz' he approached me about working on a project together which obviously I was very excited to get involved with, so it grew from there really.

And you have the luxury to have 2 other, female, artists with you: Hannah Peel and Serafina Steer.

John: Exactly yes, both are excellent musicians and good writers and composers and singers in their own area, very distinctive personalities and people and it's great to have them playing with us! Serafina is the only person I know who can play a complex lead line and a bass line at the same time.. and sing as well.

A multi-tasking person.. (laughs)

John: Absolutely.. incredible.. beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to. So, they're both excellent to work with. It's the best band I've worked with.

I remember an interview in which you said that being in a band is childish... What do you think about this new situation? Now you changed your mind? (laughs)

John: No, it was a band of guys

A rock'n roll band. Here it's more a cooperation.

John: Yeah, we find it hard to tour because, for instance, Hannah is doing an album with a choir from Orkney, a small island in Scotland. It's a 36 piece choir and she's writing music for the theater in the west end of London and other projects as well so this will take most of this year. Serafina is recording with Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) at the moment, a new album. Benge has been recording with Tara Busch, who will be part of the Maths. And several projects as well. And I've got things to do too... I got an album with piano music music to do. 

It must be a nightmare for agenda's!

John: Yeah, it's difficult to have all these people in one room. It's not like the old bands used to be: This is a band where everybody's got their own complete career, so it's all very fast moving, we have to schedule things very carefully.

Benge: The studio is kind of a central hub where we all met really. I've been working with Hannah, I mixed her last album, and Serafina's previous album. So, we've kinda all met through the studio and working together. They got interested in synthesizers and keyboards as well, so we all met there really.

John: Yeah, it's based around the studio. Ben just made this studio that is really interesting, it's got its own social circle if you like. There are other musicians as well, Jean-Gabriel,...

Benge: Yes Jean-Gabriel is a friend and musician we work with, a French guy.. He was in the original lineup when we played at the Roundhouse in London a few years ago.. It shifts around, really...

John:... and Robin Simon occasionally, who is the guitarist from Ultravox. And Liam, the drummer (Liam Hutton) who's now working with Neneh Cherry.

And for you, Benge, isn't it frustrating only to play the drums and no synths on stage?

Benge: I do play a bit of synths, actually, I have a Korg Monotribe, which I use for one song and another little Korg I use for another one. I'm also working on the computer so I've got my hands full a bit. I'm not quite as multitasking as the girls so...(laughs)

It's a saying that only women are multitasking...

John: In my case it's absolutely true..

But you sing and play your vocoder at the same time.

John: That's enough.. that's already a lot..

Let's go back a little bit in time. In the 70s. What would you say your influences were in the beginning. I heard about Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, David Bowie... Did you have other influences?

John: One influence is more prominent than that: Neu! and all the German scene was really important..

The "Krautrock"...

Yes, though it's the wrong term. It was the German adventurous music from the 70s, and that was influenced a lot by British psychedelia from the late sixties. That spirit moved to Germany. And also The Velvet Underground, that New-York scene around Andy Warhol, I really liked the whole style of it and also the music that The Velvet made. I really liked that. So, Neu! and The Velvet were the most important thing to me.

Keith Emerson?

John: No, I never liked that British music. I liked early Beatles, which is "Tomorrow Never Knows".

I was just going to say: George Harrison stuff?

John: Yes and George Martin, who was the producer, is one of my heroes. I think he is a genius. He introduced The Beatles to the interesting side of the music, it's attributed to them but it was him. He experimented with loops, random sound samples, reverse tapes, etc.

Benge: He was using the studio as an instrument. He created that himself. People don't recognize that. They were doing some amazing things. They couldn't perform it live.

John: That's the point. The studio was for the first time something distinct from live performance and he realised it first before anyone else. And the spirit moved away. In Britain, we had prog rock, progressive rock, which I thought was rubbish.

Benge: A waste of electricity...

John:... as John Peel said. The spirit of all this moved to Germany, with Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and all this generation. Michael Rother, guitar player, who played with Neu! and La Düsseldorf. I think he's a genius. He's one of the best guitarists I ever heard. He played not as a guitar, it was more a textural instrument. It was a new way of playing guitar. They did punk music before punk existed in America. It was very early.

Benge: and Conny Plank..

John: Yes, Conny Plank was central. He was the George Martin of Germany. He recorded everybody. He did from the ground up. At the beginning he had a stereo tape machine, then a four-tracks, then built a studio and everybody used it. Every band that was of any interest. Brian (Eno) was the first British person to work with him and we were the second to do it. I think all English bands afterwards got interest in that same kind of music too. You can hear it now in The Horrors and Blur, and go back to Simple Minds, New Order, all that came from that meeting of German adventurous music and British psychedelic art-rock.

What was the first full-fledged synthpop/new-wave song in rock history? Wasn't it "Hiroshima Mon Amour"?

John: I think it is. I think no one else had done a song like that before. Nobody had used the drum machine. We tried it as a rock song as well but it was better with a drum machine.

Benge: What year was that?

John: In 1977. Before that, there was "My Sex", recorded in September 1976. It's got a piano but it's a synthesizer song.

Let's make the link with now. When you see the evolution of electronic music with techno and house. Would you say that your music now is not only nostalgia, it also has a modern aspect?

John: I hope so. Nostalgia doesn't interest me at all. Because there's so much to do yet. Working with Ben has been great because it made me recover the fun and pleasure of working with those old instruments. But what Ben realised very clearly is that those instruments had never been fully explored because they were replaced very quickly by digital instruments before anybody had understood what they did. What Ben did was to record these instruments through modern digital technology and modern speakers so you can hear what they do for the first time and had never been revealed before. And so there are so many aspects of those machines that have never been explored and that's why now there is a whole generation of people who get interested because they know instinctively that these are equivalent to an Amazonian rain forest that has never been properly explored. There is a whole new territory there, fifty years after it was first established...

Benge: To my ears they still sound futuristic, and powerful and existing even though some of them are 30, 40 or 50 years old.. But it's also the way you put the sounds together or combine them with effects, editing, drum loops, programming..

John: It's an infinite grid with effects, echoes, analog sounds, computers and digital as well at the end because everyone listens to digitally whether we like it or not. But in between that, in the analog part, you have an infinite grid of sounds you can make, because they are affected in hundreds of ways all through the chain...

Benge: The way the studio is set up is you got modular synthesizers, effects, sound sources and treatments and you can connect them together so you end up with a sound that might sound completely different from when you started working on it. You have patch panels to connect things together. In fact the whole studio is one big instrument.

Would you say that your music was influenced in the meantime by other kinds of music? Eg EBM, you know, Front 242 from Belgium, or DAF? Especially in the track "Shatterproof"?

Benge: La Düsseldorf?
John; Yes. DAF were particularly interesting because they did that kind of music first. Then it turned to techno, went across the Atlantic and changed. What I'm listening to now is all blues. (laughs). I never want to play the blues because I'm not a black man from Texas but I love the organic feel of that kind of music. I always have. The first music I really listened to was the blues. I also used to listen to dub reggae in London. I went to Lee Perry's sessions when he was working with Bob Marley. That's a complete education on how to use the studio as an organic entity. There must have been 30 people in that control room, everyone with a fader. Everyone danced and Perry was directing all the changes. It was beautiful to watch.

Benge: It's not like the BBC studio's where you're not allowed to touch unless you have a badge and wear gloves. There everyone is allowed to get involved.

What are the current artists you are listening to and cooperate with? You worked with Mira Arroyo, from Ladytron. Are there other bands that you're interested in?

Benge: We've just been doing a remix swap with a girl, Gazelle Twin, who released a great electronic album in 2011. Also a band from America, New-York, Xeno & Oaklander, did a remix and they played at our show in London.

John: There's a whole new movement in America. Electronic music seem to have..

They seem to discover that it exists... (laughs)

John: There's SKRILLEX, what they've done is listen to all the dance music that's happened since 1987, take all the bits they like best and put them all together in a caricature, a cartoon version of dance music, and it works! They are only 19 years old and it's interesting to see what this new generation is doing. They have none of the prejudices of the previous generation, there is no snobbishness. They take everything.

Justice is also a bit like that.

John: Yeah. They just steal, adopt and make it their own. You know you have to be a pirate to be an efficient musician. As Picasso said "The poor artist will adopt and the good artist steals".

A lot of people must have stolen from you then.. (laughs)

John: I hope so and they're welcome to it. That's the whole point.

And it doesn't make you bitter that they make money out of it?

John: No, It's great. Money is a by-product anyway. The point is to make music.

I was thinking of David Sylvian. I found some kind of similarity between both of you? You both were in a legendary band and somehow found maturity and serenity in our solo work.

John: Yeah, maybe. I like what David has done. I respect him. He was very courageous to walk away from that band at that time and to re-establish himself in a different direction. We're from the same period. I like his work and I think he likes mine. And we got some friends in common.

Benge: He stuck to his guns and did not compromise his art really, which is quite rare.

And there's also something in the approach of music that I find similar. Based on atmospheres, a lot of philosophy.

John: I guess so. If you think about music, it seems like a very simple human activity but actually it is incredibly complex! We were talking today when we were driving, about "what is a melody"? There are dozens of definitions but none of them is satisfactory. You will find doctors of philosophy who have a nervous breakdown trying to define this.

And then also the difference between a melody and a melody that works.

John: Yeah, Why is good, why is it not.. What's the difference, yeah.

Do you realise when you are composing, oh this is going to work.

John: Yeah it's a very visceral thing. It feels right. The logic comes later. You can explain it later with words.

Benge: One thing that helps when someone is writing: you kind of know when it is not right. You know that it needs to be done better still and you keep going until it is right.

John: You think about it and have a little dialogue with yourself, edit it, throw things away when you have the courage to do it. You can't be precious about music. You have to abandon things very quickly. You have to recognise it's not working even though you spent hours to do it. You can't be possessive about music.

What about the future? What are your projects now? A new album?

Benge: We have a new album coming out on the 19th of March: The Shape Of Things and an EP coming out early June, with remixes that are not on the previous album. And we will be working on new material.

John: There are still a lot of things we started and haven't finished yet. We got together to do one album. It was meant to be experimental electronics and it turned out to be quite something else. It's nice because in a way, the machines led that. We thought we'd do something experimental with the Moog but when you get an arpeggio, it's so rhythmic and it has harmonic structures, it immediately suggests a song to me so I start singing! It's an interesting process. What you are doing is follow what the machine is giving. It's impossible to resist it. Coz there are so many possibilities there. But there's still a possibility to do an abstract thing. Benge has just done an abstract album.

Benge: Yes, it doesn't have a single conventional melody or rythm on it. It's still pure synthesizer music.... It's called "Abstraxa". It's so different from what we're doing together.

Can we expect a new CD in the style of Interplay in the future?

John: Maybe, I don't know. We'll see where it takes us. It's hard to know. What happens is you go in the studio and you begin work. You get one thing that works really well and that provides the blueprint for the album and you just know that's what you should follow. As we did before you can go in with one intention and come out with something totally different

Benge: It's good to have some general rules at the beginning, for instance, there will be no plugins or no computer editing on the record: that was one limitation.

John: At the moment we are post-digital but we could go back to pre-digital. Yeah, there are a lot of possibilities. And if we have time as well. There must be years worth of projects that need to be finished...

A big thank you to John, Benge, Hannah, Serafina and Steve.

You can read the review of the concert in Aarschot here.

Philippe BLACKMARQUIS
29/02/2012


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