Comprising of Hugh Ashton, Rob Doran, Clive Pierce and chanteuse Regine Fetet who previously worked as an exotic dancer and had a habit of stripping bare whilst performing, their classic songs like ‘Je Suis Passée’ (produced by the band with Martin Rushent) and ‘To Breathe’ AKA ‘Respirer’ (produced by Daniel Miller) are still played frequently in Swedish electro clubs. But the band themselves are still little known to most people. Their music can be described as an original mix of hard, very KRAFTWERK-esque sounds and rhythms, classic synthpop and electrofunk combined with mostly female vocals in French.
With the release of ‘Clean Tables Have To Be Burnt’, a collection of previously unheard versions and lost material from the HARD CORPS archives on New York’s Minimal Wave Records, Johan Wejedal spoke to Rob Doran, one of the band’s founders.
Can you tell me a bit about the background of HARD CORPS? What were your original inspirations?
I came from the countryside to the city in the mid 1970s and started working in music as a roadie and live sound engineer, then a studio engineer, producer and then a musician. When I first met Hugh Ashton, he was a bass player with an Afro-Rock band. He then played bass with the punk band DOLE Q, who became THE SKUNKS. They morphed into CRAZE and I remember Hugh introduced a drum machine to the sound which freaked the ageing drummer at the time known as The Vicar… he was sacked when he complained that real musicians couldn’t play with machines!
We did a series of auditions and Clive Pierce, happily playing along to a drum machine, joined CRAZE as a drummer. There were dabblings with EMI and a video but then CRAZE faded away, Hugh bought a Roland System100 and he and Clive did a series of reworkings of Italian Disco records with a singer called David Bunny. I did the recordings adding various dubs and ideas and BEASTS IN CAGES were formed. We did one live gig supporting MARILLION at the Marquee in London and produced a cover of ‘My Coo Ca Choo’ by ALVIN STARDUST on the Fresh label.
How did HARD CORPS form?
Hugh, Clive and I worked well and we started making backing tracks together, many of which went into the early HARD CORPS. Hugh was particularly adept at putting together drums, bass lines and rhythmic sequencer parts and I had now graduated into creating atmospheres, sound design, melodic parts, using the vocoder and recording it all. Clive was adapting his skills as an excellent percussionist/drummer into electronic percussion, sequencer, sound design and melodic synth parts.
We created everything including drums from the synthesisers and then would add gated reverbs or effects to thicken out the sounds. I had worked with THIS HEAT and I knew of CAN, TANGERINE DREAM, KRAFTWERK, DEPECHE MODE and NEW ORDER, but I didn’t know anyone else doing stuff like us. We added a punk and lo-fi element, it was filmic and apart from the obvious link to KRAFTWERK, there were bits of reggae and funk influences too. We spent many months developing a sound that became HARD CORPS. However it was obvious we needed a front person as my experiments with the vocoder would not have been taken seriously at that time, (the vocoder was seen as a gimmick) even though I wrote a complete song over the backing track that later became ‘For Pleasure’, called ‘TV’!
I remember meeting Regine at a party, she had a completely shaved head except for a thin plait at the front and she spent the party standing in the corner smoking joints. We heard a demo she had done where she was sort of singing and banging a couple of sticks. She was so far away from what we thought our singer might be that we gave her a try.
It was great to hear a voice on the backing tracks but there were real problems in clarity as she was French and not from the softer France but the German side, she had tuning issues and no sense of timing!
But apart from that….well she obviously had something so Clive and I worked relentlessly with her, shaping her ideas into melodies and then putting them together into song structures. When she wrote in French and translated back to English, many of her phrases were really unusual, surreal and evoking. She could set unique atmospheres which fed back into our music creation.
We managed to put together a basic demo tape of four tracks. I was still booking out the recording studio alongside the development of HARD CORPS, when a band called PERFECT STRANGERS arrived at Mekon to record some demos. They were managed by Steve McGowan and he was currently doing the rounds of record companies with their tape. He asked if he could take our demo around with him as he said an ‘art’ band would complement the pop of PERFECT STRANGERS.
It was 1984 and things moved very quickly then, John Peel wanted us to do a session for his BBC show, Richard Skinner soon followed, Survival records put out ‘Dirty’ and it charted in the indie charts for months. We started doing live work playing at Rusty Egan’s birthday party, a seedy karate club in South London with a full on lesbian security crew, headlining a night for John Peel’s Rock Week at the ICA and a TV performance on The Tube before signing with Polydor.
Can you tell me about the touring you did with DEPECHE MODE and THE CURE?
Touring with DEPECHE MODE was a joy compared to the elitism of THE CURE and their entourage. DEPECHE MODE were down to earth people, and liked our music. Often a couple of them would watch our sound checks but the British scene was changing and it would have been crucial for us to go up a gear after this tour and that might have included doing the US with Depeche. They had already been to the States and were due to go back again to consolidate their status, which they did. However, we were not invited possibly due to British and American Musician Union politics on support bands and reciprocal agreements, but I don’t think there was any chance with Regine’s onstage controversies anyway!
You were sadly overlooked in your day. Have you experienced a growing interest in HARD CORPS’s music nowadays?
Undoubtedly. When we were around in the 1980s, there were a few radio stations but dominated by Radio1 and it was much harder for different musical styles to co-exist. It had to be whatever was current and if you weren’t current you didn’t get exposure. Today different styles of music coexist and people can choose what they want. It is far healthier now in that respect and something we could only have dreamt about back then. So our music becomes more timeless and people have more choice.
What happened with the band after ‘Metal & Flesh’ was released?
By the time ‘Metal & Flesh’ was released, HARD CORPS had ceased to exist as a band. I went on to write music for TV, radio, commercials and video with the singer from PERFECT STRANGERS, Rod Syers. We had success with a number of UK and European commercials including Castrol GTX, BMW and VW Sharan. Hugh carried on with Regine for a while doing PAs and using the HARD CORPS name before becoming THE SUN KINGS with former NAKED LUNCH weirdo Paul ‘Driver’ Davis!
Is there any unreleased HARD CORPS material?
Yes there is but not a lot as we took so long making it!
Regine sadly passed away in 2003 but what are the original members doing now? Do you still have contact with them?
We are all still in contact.
Are there any plans to release new material under the HARD CORPS name?
No new material, but some of the unreleased music is going out on Minimal Wave and the odd compilation like Trevor Jackson’s ‘Metal Dance’. We will also release a series of instrumental versions and different mixes of existing songs at some point too.
What are your fondest memories from your career in HARD CORPS?
Working on the early material like ‘Metal & Flesh’, ‘Dirty, ‘Desolation Land’, ‘To Breathe’ and ‘Sacred Heart’. It was exciting and felt like innovative and uncharted territory then.
What are your personal feelings about the current electronic scene in UK? Is it just the same old stuff in new clothes?
We were working with the limitations of the machines, for example trying to humanise the sequencers and create feel in the rhythms.
Early on we didn’t have presets to start a sound design. We had to build the sounds so they were always unique. If a fader or knob was moved that was it. No recall on the System100 or the mixing desk and only a very limited amount of memory in the Jupiter 6 or Junos.
The result was a battle to blend the human and machine. However the machine’s unique limitations informed the end sound totally. Today’s electronic musicians don’t have that initial battle with the machines in the same way. The quantisation and feel of sequencers today is indiscernible from human playing and of course much tighter. The choice of preset sounds is immense and samplers can mimic every instrument and so on. All modern mainstream music can be synched to a machine if needed. So the problem for new electronic bands must be to say something fresh. Maybe they are not that new, but I like THE PRODIGY and CRYSTAL CASTLES.
The Electricity Club gives it warmest thanks to Rob Doran
This article was originally published in Swedish at synth.nu
‘Clean Tables Have To Be Burnt’ is released as a 180g vinyl LP only edition of 999 by Minimal Wave Records on 16th April 2012
‘The Minimal Wave Tapes: Volume 2’ featuring HARD CORPS’ ‘Dirty’ is available now on CD, vinyl and download
‘Metal & Flesh’ is available as a download album from iTunes and Amazon
Interview by Johan Wejedal
2nd April 2012