VINTAGE FESTIVAL PANEL INTERVIEW
The Vintage Festival Electronic Phuture Revue hosted by Mark Jones at the Royal Festival Hall saw synthpop fans from around the world gather to witness the best in classic and new electronic pop. With this philosophy being very much part of The Electricity Club's own mandate, it was highly appropriate that the initially announced line-up of HEAVEN 17, THOMAS DOLBY, ONETWO, MIRRORS and RECOIL had all been interviewed by this very web publication at some point during the short 18 months of its existence prior to the event.
However earlier in the day, The Electricity Club decided to focus on the other people who matter in the continuing success of the genre; the people who get involved as enthusiasts, whether it be through producing their own music, going to shows or writing about developments within the scene. For this year's panel interview, Matt Culpin from the duo NORTHERN KIND who have a new album Credible Sexy Unit out later this year, returned following his stint on last summer's panel at Infest. He was joined by Paul Boddy, the musician/producer whose 2009 dance remix of ULTRAVOX's Visions In Blue under this moniker EMP was chosen by DJ Rusty Egan as the only contemporary reworking to be played at The Blitz Club Reunion earlier this year. Also accepting TEC's invitation to take part was Tapio Normall, the Finnish electro aficionado whose gig exploits are documented on his website The Amazing Adventures Of Mr Normall. Completing the panel was Steve Gray whose valued expertise including DEPECHE MODE and GARY NUMAN has been applied to The Electricity Club's various journalistic endeavours. Together, they discussed a variety of topics including the current health of synthpop, the best albums of 2011 so far and the future of electronic music.
With events such as this Electronic Phuture Revue, Back To The Phuture and Short Circuit Presents Mute, how are things looking for electronic music and its place in popular culture?
Paul: For me, electronic music is omnipresent, it's everywhere. Back in the 80s, it was very much in its own little camp and you had your rock, pop and cheese but now it straddles so many genres be it R'n'B, pop, electro - it's just firmly entrenched now which is really good.
Steve: It's a delight to see such a major electro event take place at the Royal Festival Hall. It just shows what a sea change there's been in people's attitudes towards the genre. GARY NUMAN, although he's not playing tonight, is a good example of how things have changed. When he first hit the charts in 1979, the press hated him and tore him to shreds. And yet 30 years on, he's been hailed as an innovator and has the received the Mojo Inspiration Award! It's a complete U-turn and shows we were right all along!
Matt: Events like this really showcase how popular it is. It's lost the 80s labeling, it's become its own thing now. These classic bands are credible because they're still producing new music and that's the difference. It's not a tribute, it's a development. It's a great place to have them all together.
That’s an important thing; this Vintage event has credibility. It's so different from things like Here & Now and Rewind. I can't blame any band for playing those kinds of things for the money, but I've always been impressed that someone like CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN has avoided peddling Duel and Dr. Mabuse around the nostalgia circuit.
Steve: I can't say I've ever been to either of those events, and I don't think I really want to *laughs*. What we're celebrating here is a genre of music, not a bygone decade. I just imagine those events as being a bit of a karaoke singalong really. I went to a gig on the recent HUMAN LEAGUE tour and I was surprised at the number of people there who just seemed to want to get p*ssed up and singalong to Don’t You Want Me. I guess things like Here & Now cater for the same audience.
Paul: I'm with Steve on that, I've never been to one and I've got no real desire unless there was a band on there that I know I was never able to see anywhere else. Those sort of things, there's a house backing band and they trot the singers on and off. It's just an excuse for a load of drunken couples to go to their only gig of the year! *laughs*
Unfortunately, these types of audiences are a bit of an occupational hazard now with our generation. It plagues OMD gigs, and even some DEPECHE MODE and GARY NUMAN ones in my experience; there are people who are there just to be seen and are not actually into the music. It rather spoils things - I still remember one idiot who tried to chat up a girl in the middle of a DM gig by telling her at the top of his voice that he WASN'T into Depeche!!
Matt: I've never been to Here & Now; to me they just come across as a bit cheesy and a bit desperate. You've got people just doing the old hits, I may as well go home and listen to the records as I saw them originally.
Tapio: Events like this and Back To The Phuture at The Troxy are great for people like me who travel long distances to gigs. It's better value for money to see 3 or 4 bands than one headline act because the price of the trip is anyhow about the same.
Tapio, you did a brilliant Facebook status update in the spring when you said: "On 21st March, there will be new albums released by JOHN FOXX, DURAN DURAN and HUMAN LEAGUE. If anyone from the future sees this message in cyberspace, it is 2011, not 1981". So what did you think of those albums?
Tapio: It was an unbelievable day. JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Interplay is among his three best albums ever. DURAN DURAN's All You Need Is Now
is one of their best. But then I am strange in that I like their last album Red Carpet Massacre very much!
So do I actually! *laughs*
Tapio: So I'm not the only one?! But I have to confess, I haven't heard THE HUMAN LEAGUE's Credo. I heard Night People and it reminds me of last Autumn's HEAVEN 17 gigs when Mark Jones was DJ-ing - he played it and it brings back good memories.
So what did the rest of you think of those three albums, and BLANCMANGE's Blanc Burn which came out a few weeks before?
Steve: I wasn't taken with THE HUMAN LEAGUE album; I just felt it was 'Human League by numbers' really. JOHN FOXX I enjoyed, I've got a lot of admiration for him and he's still breaking the mould over 30 years into his career. You have to give him credit for that. But of those three albums, the DURAN DURAN one is the most listenable. I'm not a big fan of Mark Ronson but he seems to have captured the essence of DURAN DURAN, whatever that may be. The standout track is The Man Who Stole A Leopard; I love that one. As for the BLANCMANGE album, it was quirky! *laughs*
Matt: I was in New Orleans when all these albums came out and I had a night in my hotel room downloading them all. The album I listened to the most was the DURAN DURAN one because I think it's a lot more instant. It was very familiar to me, what I loved about DURAN DURAN. THE HUMAN LEAGUE album; when I first heard it, especially on headphones, it sounded very under produced, quite raw - they sounded like demos. But I have to say, now I probably listen to it the most out of all those albums you've mentioned. Time will tell on the others but THE HUMAN LEAGUE's Credo was an enjoyable surprise. This album crystallises that moment in time for me when I was in New Orleans which is nice.
Paul: I can't comment on the DURAN DURAN one as I've not heard it. I'm keen to have a listen now. THE HUMAN LEAGUE one, the problem was there were such high expectations. Without that band, I wouldn't be here now talking to you guys. It was always going to fail as far as living up to past glories; I was disappointed. The JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS one really surprised me and that's definitely the best of the four you've mentioned. I was expecting like the JOHN FOXX & LOUIS GORDON alienated car crash stuff but Interplay was very human in places. On Evergreen, it's just his voice exposed and it's really emotional. BLANCMANGE's new album? Like Steve says - quirky! *laughs*
Are HURTS helping to further the cause of electronic pop music or are they just a modern boy band in disguise?
Steve: Well I love HURTS! They've been hugely successful; their album has sold shedloads and they've been winning over Europe with their tours and festival appearances. Among the current crop of new electronic acts, they are doing very well and we should celebrate them for that fact alone. Personally I love the drama and the romance in their music. I think they're a bit like are the A-HA of their generation. I wouldn't call them a boy band as such, but perhaps A-HA were a modern boy band in their time?
Paul: I was only actually listening to them about 2 weeks ago, primarily as a reference for an album I'm working on. I'd deliberately avoided them because the whole 80s thing was really hammered home with them. I don't like having stuff rammed down my throat too much. I quite like them although my comparison would be more like SAVAGE GARDEN - the two pretty boys! But I'm a bit sitting on the fence at the moment as it's not typical electronic music. It's really well produced and the guy sings really well, the design and marketing is very good. I think there's more to them than being a boy band, there's a mystique around them which I find quite interesting.
Matt: I really liked their previous incarnation DAGGERS. HURTS, there are one or two songs on the Happiness album I really love but the rest is just filler for me. I'm not really into them. I think they're more style over substance to be honest.
Tapio: I only know their singles but I like HURTS - I like MIRRORS better though. But to me, HURTS are more TAKE THAT than ULTRAVOX although it's good that young people are getting interested in electronic music. Maybe they will start to listen to ULTRAVOX and KRAFTWERK after hearing HURTS.
MIRRORS released their debut album Lights And Offerings. What did you think of it? Are they the next generation of Synth Britannia, or is it as one electro blog referred to them, 'synthpop by numbers'?
Steve: I think MIRRORS' debut album is outstanding. It's one of the few albums you can put on, listen to it from beginning to end and you never have to reach for the 'skip' button. It's just seamless. I've been lucky enough to see them live several times now. As a live act they are formidable, they put on a fantastic show. They also have a very keen sense of style, and put a lot of effort into their presentation from their sharp suits right through to their live visuals. It is well thought out, every single aspect of it, and I really admire them for that.
Tapio: MIRRORS are the best new act in my opinion at the moment. They are terrific live but we will see how they develop. There's a lot about MIRRORS that I like; how they sound on the record, their look and especially their gigs.
Matt: MIRRORS are young enough and credible to not be associated with the electronic 80s bands. A lot of the people that are into them are obviously people of the Synth Britannia age group that have got all the background but their younger fans wouldn't have necessarily heard all their references so they're credible in their own right. When I listen to them, I can hear all their influences which for me is great but they're too young to have appreciated that music at the time it came out. They've listened to it in retrospect, liked it and then, gone away to do their own version.
Paul: I really want to like MIRRORS a lot, I love their image and I've seen them live before. The album was OK but it didn't push any boundaries. I mean, you know the amount of capacity and sounds you can get out of a synth and I feel the album was very limited palette wise, I expected more from it. The problem is where are they going to go now? It's a little bit like DELPHIC a year ago now and they've sort of disappeared. I like DELPHIC, probably more so than MIRRORS but I think they could get pigeonholed as a support band for events like these…I mean, they're going to support OMD again. But I like them.
So could MIRRORS be in danger of being labelled a 'Synth Britannia' support act having now supported OMD, GARY NUMAN, JOHN FOXX and HEAVEN 17?
Steve: This is a tough one; they are obviously targeting a synth-friendly audience and doing so very successfully. At the last Back To The Phuture event, they were the opening act and went down a storm so they are certainly reaching out to those people. But it would be nice to see them move up to the next level and headline gigs in their own right.
Matt: They have gone down a difficult route by doing that but I can completely understand why. NORTHERN KIND supported KAJAGOOGOO and there was me thinking "great for exposure but do we really want to be associated with this 80s band and label?". In retrospect, NORTHERN KIND probably are a bit labelled now and it's a shame. But for MIRRORS, they're exploiting whatever they can and there will be a load of people who have not heard of them who will come and see HEAVEN 17, THOMAS DOLBY etc. They'll hear MIRRORS and go "Blimey, where have these been?"
Paul: It's harder generally to sell records these days. At least they play live which will be in their favour. But if they did make another album, it would be good to see them take another level.
I think their best support act move was when they opened for WHITE LIES at Shepherds Bush Empire in February.
Paul: Yes, that would bring out a much younger audience.
Tapio: MIRRORS have been headlining in Europe and that's the way to go - Europe. These older generation synth bands; the truth is they won't be with us for much longer, there has to be new ones!
What did you think of LADY GAGA's new album Born This Way and do you think she has a place in being considered part of the electronic pop scene that we love?
Paul: I don't think she fits in with the electronic scene generally, but I loved the first album and I thought the songs were perfect pop songs, they couldn't actually be any better. I feel though that there's a bit of a pendulum with her and the new album, it's swung onto her image so much. It's almost like the songs aren't quite as good. Her first three singles were exemplary pop. But because electronic music is so omnipresent now, there's so many genres that use it. I don't see her as being part of what where we're at tonight, that's my personal opinion.
Steve: I have a certain admiration for LADY GAGA, I like the fact that she's so 'out there'! She says she wants to puncture a hole in pop music which can only be a good thing. That said, her songs aren't always that great *laughs*. And I don't really see her as an electro act. I think as was expressed in your recent article The Synics Guide To LADY GAGA, there are some good songs in there but you have to sift through all the cr*p to get to them.
Matt: I think LADY GAGA's going to shift pretty much like MADONNA did and go with what's in at that time. There's nothing really new about her apart from the shock value of what she wears. But I love her songs, her songwriting is brilliant and I have both the albums. But I feel if there's a big shift in what's going on musically, she'll move along with it.
Tapio: I haven't heard the two albums, just the singles. She's interesting as a person and her image is extravagant and so 'out there' but the music is not for me. When I heard Poker Face a few years back, I thought it was by a Swedish, German or Italian singer - one of those!
KRAFTWERK are doing these 3D concerts in the Autumn. So what of the Klingklang brand and where can it go now there is only Ralf Hütter left?
Tapio: First of all, aren't all shows in'3D'? *laughs* KRAFTWERK and its future? If Ralf Hütter is replaced by someone else, it won't be KRAFTWERK anymore. But also Fritz Hilbert and Henning Schmitz have been in the band for 20 years yet are still regarded as the 'new boys'!
Matt: I think it's had its day. I had the pleasure of meeting Karl Bartos last year; he was a big contributor to the whole thing, especially as a co-writer from The Man-Machine onwards and it's disappointing now that there's just one guy left that controls that brand because it will be diluted and it won't really be KRAFTWERK.
Paul: I saw KRAFTWERK here a few years ago when Florian Schneider was in the band and I'm grateful I managed to see them before he left. It doesn't feel quite the same without him but if they played a gig in this country again, I'd go and see them. At the Manchester Velodrome in 2009, they did a little bit where you needed the 3D glasses for one of the songs. It's cool with the whole 3D thing, I don't think anyone's done that for a whole show so they are pushing the boundaries visually rather than musically.
Steve: Well, Ralf Hütter is the brand now isn't he? But I don't see that as necessarily being a problem. If he can still put on innovative live shows and make good records, then KRAFTWERK have a future.
New albums are coming out from GARY NUMAN, ERASURE, LADYTRON, ULTRAVOX, THOMAS DOLBY, MARSHEAUX and LITTLE BOOTS. Which ones are you particularly looking forward to?
Steve: I'm a bit of a Numanoid so I always look forward to new GARY NUMAN albums, quite often setting myself up for disappointment *laughs* What would I like to hear from the new GARY NUMAN record? Big fat synths, some great tunes and hopefully he'll stop banging on about God all the time! The new ULTRAVOX record is also a really exciting prospect. I was lucky enough to see them live on their recent tours, and I thought they were brilliant. If they can recapture the magic of their 'classic years' in the studio, then we could be in for something really special.
Tapio: This year has been very good for albums in this genre. I personally am looking forward to the ULTRAVOX and THOMAS DOLBY albums.
Matt: LADYTRON definitely, MARSHEAUX probably next. I always buy ERASURE's albums but I've been really disappointed with the last few. The fact that Vince Clarke has got back into his modulars and vintage synths is good. But the only thing that puts me off is it's being produced by FRANKMUSIK as there's nothing of his that I've heard which I really align with. As always, I'm hopeful but I'm sceptical at the same time.
Paul: For me it would have to be the ULTRAVOX one, I'm intrigued to see what these guys can come up with after spending so long apart in a creative capacity! With ERASURE, I would love a return to form, but we shall see -
Which new or up-and-coming electronic acts should we look out for? I've got my eye on CURXES from Brighton.
Matt: Yes, I had a listen to CURXES and I liked bits of it but not enough to form my own opinion. They're young but they seem to have their own unique sound which is good. VILE ELECTRODES definitely and I find myself listening to them quite a lot. But I don't think I listen to that much new music which makes me feel there's a hidden gem waiting.
Paul: I'm pretty fussy when it comes to new electronic acts; rather than favouring ones which try to re-create the 80s, I tend to go for ones that take that sound and add dynamics and dance elements to it. Australia has a really healthy electronic scene and a couple of my favourites would be THE PRESETS (not strictly a new act) and GRAFTON PRIMARY. In the UK it would be AUTOKRATZ.
Tapio: This is not my strongest area. I don't really know many new bands to be honest. I should go out more - still, I can recommend two newish Finnish electronic acts who are VILLA NAH and PROCESSORY.
Steve: I'm a big fan of TENEK, who already have two great albums of edgy synthpop under their belt. Their new EP release, which is due out in September, features none other than Chris Payne from GARY NUMAN's old band on violin, so that's something to look forward to!
How do you feel about other contemporary developments in electronic music such as dubstep and witch house?
Matt: I don't know if I'm hip enough to know about those two genres *laughs* It's funny but when I started my design business 12 years ago, one of the first jobs we did was for a drum 'n' bass label called Formation Records. Just by having to, I got to hear lots of that and I could hear loads of electronic samples being used. It's like with AFRIKA BAMBAATA and KRAFTWERK, he probably didn't know who KRAFTWERK were but for some reason, he hooked onto that kind of music. Maybe with these other genres, you have influences coming out that people pick up on. I like the whole THE KNIFE / FEVER RAY thing, this very stark music that comes from Sweden. It's a bit too minimal for everyday listening for me, I can't put it on and feel excited but I do enjoy it. I prefer the perfect 3 and a half minute pop song that makes me feel something!
I really like some of THE KNIFE's stuff like Silent Shout and Pass This On but these sound deeply melodic compared to the tonal thing that's going on with FEVER RAY - it seems to have spawned this heavy witch house strain with acts like THE HORN THE HUNT, AUSTRA, NIKI & THE DOVE and GAZELLE TWIN.
Steve: It doesn't do much for me. As Matt says, we all love the perfect pop song, and I don't hear many emanating from those genres.
Paul: I can't really avoid things like dubstep because as a music tech lecturer, that's what a lot of my students are into ¬ I like the fact that artists making it are pushing the boundaries of electronic music (as bands like THE HUMAN LEAGUE did) and also because it's a continually evolving genre. But I do prefer the stuff that has more of a musical backbone to it like MAGNETIC MAN or NERO. Witch house I can't comment on; as the name sounds so ridiculous, I have avoided it like the plague!
What did you think of JAMES BLAKE's album? It was different but I couldn't get into it -
Paul: I thought it was terribly overrated; ended up skipping through most of the tracks - a case of the 'emperor's new clothes' for me I'm afraid!
Where do you see synthpop going?
Matt: Synthpop's not going to go away. There will just be more and more dilution of it. What you'll get is bands that latch onto a small part of that era like SOLVENT has. He's done a remix for MY ROBOT FRIEND who's worked with ALISON MOYET and caught onto a very specific area which is YAZOO. When I heard it, I thought it was the best thing I'd heard in ages.
Paul: As long as it doesn't try too hard to mimic the 80s it will be fine. The other point I want to make is that I'm probably looking for something like the next GOLDFRAPP ie a band that has superlative electronics, but combined with a vocalist to match. For me, the singers on a lot of current synthpop seem to be an afterthought and being a producer, a song / act is only as good as its weakest link.
I know what you mean. Quite a few of these home studio musicians think they can just get away with that nasal robotic thing like the SILICON TEENS which always sounded like Daniel Miller had a peg on his nose! *laughs*
Tapio: The future of electronic music will be fine as there will always be people who want to make music that goes "bleep" and "blop" with a futuristic feel and image to it! And there will be more guys and girls who will dig it!
Steve: With the established acts finally getting the recognition they deserve, and with so much great new talent on the scene, I sincerely hope it goes from strength to strength.
Will Britpop make a return and kill everything off again?
Steve: I bloody hope not! I don't fancy writing for The Landfill Indie Club *laughs*
Tapio: As Steve said, I BLOODY HOPE NOT! Synthpop won't go away and some boys with guitars won't kill it!
Paul: At the moment I can't see it. But as everything is cyclical in the industry, you never know! It's weird because a few years ago, it was terminally uncool to have a keyboard/synth player in a band. Often they were relegated to the side or behind the stage. But now everyone band is boasting a new 'electronic direction' to their sound, from EDITORS and BLOC PARTY through to typical indie fodder like THE HOOSIERS!
Matt: Everything is cyclical isn't it? It's gonna come back. There might be another BEATLES revival in ten years! There haven't been any great big movements in music since the Britpop era and I don't know why that is. Maybe things have got a bit stagnant. What I'm waiting for is that next big shift in music. But everyone now looks back rather than forward. It's the most difficult thing to create in the world, something brand new.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to everyone who participated.
Special thanks also to all the wives and friends who sat in patiently on the sidelines while the panel was in progress.
by Chi Ming Lai
8th August 2011