Unique Interplay – The Pleasures of Electricity
There has never been a more extraordinary time for John Foxx. He remains an innovator of hard electro composition; illuminated by retro frameworks and technological genius. A somewhat purist pairing that multiplies to the sum of futuristic enlightenment. It’s a definition that’s never been more evident than it is right now. And that is by no means a bad thing. John Foxx & The Maths have not only delivered noteworthy contributions in the form of Interplay, The Shape Of Things and now Evidence – all combining to form a labyrinth of weaving sonic elements, 2013 sees them joining OMD as special guests on their forthcoming English Electric Tour.
Many will of course note John Foxx for his role as the original Ultravox frontman, where punk morphed into the electronic, appearing on 1977’s self-titled Ultravox! as well as Ha!-Ha!-Ha! (1977) and Systems Of Romance (1978), before eventually leaving the band in 1979 and achieving minor chart success under his own steam with his first solo single ‘Underpass’. Metamatic was the enigmatic template that launched John Foxx’s solo career; a body of work that has spanned a total output of 26 studio albums to date. Since those days, he has touched his peers with his unique, understated influence and is held in high esteem by a good number of mainstream artists – so much so, Foxx is a musician that will always flag up on the radar of all those who cherish the tingle-flooded moments of technological electromagnetic art form.
A lot happened over the years, including Foxx taking a hiatus from the music industry – in danger of disappearing off the grid altogether. Still, in recent times, far from being the hidden man, his analogue synthesizer roots have become a mainstay, sometimes positioned alongside the haunting Evidence of traditional instrumentation, courtesy of violinist Hannah Peel. And with John Foxx & The Maths going on to win Best Electro Act of 2011 at the Artrocker Magazine Awards of that year, he continues to receive huge critical acclaim.
His strengths remain palpable – evident to this day in the form of Sci-fi vocal work built around experimental electronics, positively charged to deliver a pioneering mix of innovatively fashioned beat maps and cinematic imagery – staggeringly confident and self-aware. The Electricity Club talks to the man himself as he reveals modern music’s finest hour and not least his making of the world’s first post-digital band.
Evidence is the latest release from John Foxx & The Maths, produced by yourself and Benge. What are the important factors from a production point of view with a new record?
Benge and his synths…
You’ve likened Benge to Conny Plank in the past?
He’s the same animal, it must be some sort of stray international gene; same intelligence, perception, patience and haircut. A no-mercy attitude to getting sounds. Complete psychoerotic involvement with technology and art. Also endearingly capable of being daft as a brush and utterly sensible, all at the same time.
There’s a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Have a Cigar’ on Evidence – how did that come about?
By accident, like most good things. Mojo asked us to choose a track to cover for a project they were doing. It provided an excuse to go electro-psychedelic again, but with archaic material. Always loved The Floyd from the around the 60’s. They were the Brit Velvets then – experimental, edgy, unpredictable, and chemically efflorescent. Wonderful. The premise of ‘Have A Cigar’ is daft, really. Hip band whinges about massive success – truly of another era. We did it with utter respect and irony.
Of course, there are no men with cigars any more. They have Apple logos burnt into their foreheads instead – and they do not offer you a bite of the fruit. It’s the Garden Of Eden in reverse. Wait outside in the rain. No, you can’t come in. Take this Mac and bugger off. I guess we’re all Cybersurfs now. Get back to your workstation.
The John Foxx & The Maths projects – how have they been different to each other and what boundaries do you feel you’ve pushed?
Our own, mostly. Trying to honour whatever arrives with long-term involvement, good and bad, without falling prey to nostalgia or too much knowingness, complacency, desire to please or self-delusion…
Who am I trying to kid? – All completely impossible. Of course we fell for the lot and came out reasonably well by guidance from Malins – he’s the guide dog. Nips your ankles when you’re heading for the busy road.
When looking to put together an album length narrative, what inspires your lyrics?
Mostly observing your own frailty and inadequacy. Plus wandering around the streets, bumping into things and watching all the little momentary dramas and comedies.
I tend to do a lot of listening in to conversations in pubs and trains, Glimpsing other lives in lighted windows as you pass by – 5pm in winter, when the lights are just going on. If you have enough cheek to make random, seemingly senseless connections, you find they occasionally turn out to be seriously apt… or not.
And how have those concepts matured over the years?
Increase in urgency – I can see the other side of the hill, now.
You’ve been successful in portraying a very individual style along with a distinguished sound – one that utilizes vintage sounds and technology taking on that a degree of purity, yet manages to sound fresh and current. For you, what is the essential ingredient that morphs the two?
Did we really do that? If you have to blame anything – it’s simple excitement, allied to foolish pride. Dash of self-delusion and vanity… immature desire to impress, together with a naïve compulsion to communicate. Basic equipment for any aspiring artist.
You’ve produced a large body of work over the years, in collaboration with some very interesting younger musicians – who would you most like to collaborate with in the future and why?
Beautiful, desirable and intelligent women – because they may not otherwise wish to collaborate with me.
What do you think inspired musicians to use electronics and synths to create their music rather than guitars?
They make interesting noises that other instruments can’t make.
Did any particular soundtrack styled compositions that were perhaps born out of the experimental use of synthesizers ever influence you?
Is it true you established some interest in the Acid House music scene?
Absolutely; modern music’s finest hour. Sound turned into a Luscious Liquid Language.
How and why did this catch your attention?
I first heard acid at James Pinker’s house in Vauxhall around 1988. It was all on cassette then – the 12 inch versions hadn’t arrived. Recognised the DNA instantly and got right on board. Psychedelic electronic dance music made by 808/909/303. Out of the speakers came these beautiful, multicoloured, 3D, feathered snake monsters of sheer sonic beauty. How could you not subscribe? You’d have to be daft, deaf and dim.
Can you give us some insight of your favourite albums and have they influenced your music in anyway?
I’ll try to be brief.
Neu! 75 was a big one – they had European Punk Electro down years before the rest of the world got there. ‘Isi’ is the track. Gorgeous.
Phaedra by Tangerine Dream was another – Psychedelia under the floorboards. Grabs your ankles with chilly hands before you can get into bed.
All Conny Plank’s recordings of Kraftwerk – he invented the sound. Genius meets vision. The future got realized and Conny recorded it all. No Conny would have meant no German scene and therefore modern music would now have a totally different shape. Kraftwerk would have joined The Shadows.
Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder – When ‘I Feel Love’ first swayed out of the speakers, I thought Kraftwerk had got a black woman singer – total ecstatic, genius combination – and a pulse that replaced the one in your heart.
The Velvet Underground – Lou Reed stole Dylan’s entire 1968 New York routine and mixed it up with Warhol, suicidal model girls, drugs, distortion and feedback. Nick Kent was one of the first Brits to spot what was going on and wrote about it all with flair and accuracy. It will never die or age.
Harold Budd & Brian Eno The Pearl – Purity and intelligence moving in entirely the opposite direction to everything else. We had to build an entirely new weather system to accommodate this particular stream.
Switched On Bach – Great slabs of Inevitable Music from WENDY CARLOS. First illustration of the power of Modular Logic.
Dark Side Of The Moon – Complete world in a bit of vinyl. Like the Sistine Chapel, it’s too expensive to build on this scale anymore. The era has gone and we don’t have the craftsmen.
Thomas Tallis – True British, transcendent incandescence. I went to Rome, heard ‘Palastrina’, brought it back here and exceeded it all. Incredible. Play ‘Spem In Alium’ loud at night. Luminous structures multiply in the room. You can walk around in it.
Keith Jarrett – ’70s Live European Concerts. Brought the delight of improvisation – and the simple complexity of piano lyricism without Jazz cliché – to life, in public, all over the world. I’m endlessly grateful for that. Only bit I didn’t like was the gratuitous ivory thumping at the end.
You’ve always made a huge effort to take analogue synths out as part of your stage show and sound. How important is that aspect to you given the soft versions that are now available? Is it a purist thing?
Yes. We are Purist, Puritan – Puritanical. And now the world’s first post-digital band. These instruments absolutely do sound unique and different. Visually, they also inspire confidence and announce your intentions. They are capable of destabilizing all materials, from large concrete and steel structure to the synapses of cockroaches. You can also hide behind them. We recently recruited Professor Stephen Dawkins as Head of Certainty, to do an Ayatollah Tour of stadiums and bookshops. With his PR skills, our rise will be inexorable…
What piece of equipment excites you most and why?
I dare not reply.
I think many would find it an interesting collaboration if you were to team up with any of your ex-band mates from Ultravox on a track and/or project. I have to ask if you’ve ever had the urge or inclination to do so?
Oh yes – Rob Simon and I will make an album soon. He’s the best guitarist I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard them all.
What can you recall as the most significant from the early days with Ultravox? And have any of those experiences in particular brought you to the place you are now?
The effect of working in a band as it begins to wake up to the fact that it’s a swarm organism and beginning to play in concert with itself. That’s always brief moment, but a peak experience for any participant. Of course, you later realize the chemistry is easily shattered and utterly non-retrievable…
Was there a point within your various works where you had felt that you’d found your ultimate voice, or communicated something significant?
Several times. Mostly you’re kidding yourself. Still, I guess it supplies a reasonably honourable motive for continuing…
Jonathan Barnbrook made some amazing animated projections at the Roundhouse show back in 2010 – how much input do you have with regards the visual aspects? Is there a typical brief?
Agreed – I hate to admit but it’s all Jonathan – I’m constantly astounded at his inventiveness and accuracy. He’s a first rate image maker. Those visuals actually expand the songs. Exponentialism of the first order.
Karborn, too – he does great visuals and we work together all the time.
Some people are capable of making the material bigger – often you see how inappropriate imagery will diminish the songs. We are fortunate to have found people who do the opposite.
In recent times, synthpop has continued to make its mark given some of the high-impact releases that have emerged in recent times. Are there any recent releases in the genre that stand out for you?
Oh, lots of it. I find I particularly enjoy lots of those abstracted synthbleep moments you find even in the most generic dance records. The downside is lots of bands are sticking a temporary synth bit on while the fashion’s going. Decorative, not structural.
I especially love the way Skrillex makes everyone jump in the taste trials at the moment – Bart Simpson got a computer. America calls it Dubstep, that’s a misnomer – nowt to do with it – more like nice, cheap rave with Big Lights and all possible generic elements pasted together. What I like about it is – it’s completely independent of our intricate tribal snobbery – great whoosh of fresh air in the dark cathedral of UK/Europa taste.
You’re touring the UK with OMD this spring. How did this come about?
We’re seizing an opportunity to expand our audience on the back of someone else’s success.
What approach are you likely to take with the shows?
Head on. Lights Off. No Mercy.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to John Foxx.
Special thanks to Steve Malins at Random PR. Header photo by Ed Fielding.
Evidence is released by Metamatic Records and available now as a CD and download
John Foxx & The Maths play as special guests of OMD on their 2013 English Electric UK tour which includes:
Margate Winter Gardens (28th April), Birmingham Symphony Hall (29th April), Nottingham Royal Centre (1st May), Ipswich Regent Theatre (2nd May), London Roundhouse (3rd May), Bristol Colston Hall (5th May), Oxford New Theatre (6th May), Sheffield City Hall (8th May), Leeds Academy (9th May), Manchester Academy (10th May), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (12th May), Gateshead Sage (13th May), Liverpool Empire (14th May)
John Foxx & The Maths play a headline show at Brighton’s Concorde 2 on 7th June with support from Vile Electrodes. Tickets can be purchased from the Concorde 2 online box office.
John Foxx & The Maths also play The Playground Festival at London’s Brixton Academy on 8th June with Gary Numan and a host of DJ guests including ex-Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flür. A special offer for Foxx and Numan fans offering a discounted ticket of £27.50 is available for a limited period at: https://www.trackitdown.net/event/the-playground-festival-gary-numan-special-offer/401.html