Listen to his albums, see his live shows, read his stories or countless interviews and at the end of it, one is still left with the same unanswerable question: who – or what – is JOHN FOXX? An elusive – and reclusive – persona behind which Dennis Leigh lives his artistic life, JOHN FOXX seems to be far more an evolving series of images and ideas than any particular person. He’s not someone we’ll ever know, even in the Smash Hits sense: what does he eat for breakfast? What colour are his socks? How does he spend his time? A facade which then builds other more temporary facades, any interview with JOHN FOXX has to be approached with the acceptance that one is merely glimpsing through lowered blinds at a temporary image – of a girl, a boy and a city.
The most recent project from the Foxx mindform is ‘Interplay’, a collaboration with Benge – he of the tardis-like gargantuan analogue London studio which has become something of a synth-geek urban legend… some say he keeps a relic of Bob Moog under glass? Some say he has Vincent Price’s Mellotron? Benge and a loose group of musicians known by the collective noun THE MATHS, including LADYTRON’s Mira Aroyo, joined the growing list of musicians taking position behind a bank of electronics with Foxx. Strangely, for a non-person who enjoys a level of control over his (limited) public image, he seems to relish collaborative work to an unusual extent.
The benefit of offering his ideas within a collaborative context is that it makes the notion of JOHN FOXX even more difficult to reduce, to define. This incarnation which produced Interplay seems to be a meditative yet playful Foxx persona, engaging with a landscape way beyond the M25, and closer to the world of dreams and speculative realities, even, on ‘Summerland’, flirting with the pagan notions of an afterlife. He is experimenting with a form not before developed: a cabaret Foxx, an actor, a channel of both dark and light notions synthesised for entertainment and decadence.
The Electricity Club’s Australian correspondent Nix Lowrey asks for an audience, hoping to flush the Interplay Foxx from his lair…
Let’s start with an easy one – what was the first electronic pop(-ish) album that you bought, and what has been your favourite gig ever?
Album – ‘Switched-On Bach’ by WALTER CARLOS, gig – The 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, Alexandra Palace in 1967.
At Back To The Phuture in April, will you be playing older material this time as you did last year? If so, will you be choosing different material for this time?
Some differences, some the same – it’s not at all pinned down yet. I think there’ll be a few surprises.
How did you feel about the Roundhouse show lats year? Was it difficult to organise and perform given the impressive array of analogue on stage?
A bit of a tightrope walk, but good when everything got going. ‘He’s A Liquid’ and ‘Burning Car’ were the best they’ve ever been. They just gathered up the energy and swept us all along. Everyone gave it everything. Robin Simon was transcendent. Jonathan Barnbrook made stunning animated projections, Karborn VJ’d with great verve and skill. Everyone seemed to keep on gathering energy as a unit. Lots of luminous moments. I was very proud.
What did you take from that gig as overall impressions or new learning?
How much I enjoy working with a band – especially having Serafina Steer there – the chemistry feels really good. I’d love to get Hannah Peel in on electric violin, that would really make it sing – and I’d also like us all to write and record some new songs now.
Are you comfortable continuing to perform early ULTRAVOX material at your gigs?
Oh yes – I wrote it, after all.
Do you feel any positive nostalgia towards that time at all? If so, what are your positive memories or associations related to?
No nostalgia at all. I enjoyed working out how to write through a band and a studio. That can be a great experience – but it can also carry an equal amount of baggage. At times, I re-experience the great relief of leaving that way of life behind forever.
What does you see as the wide appeal of analogue?
It’s powerful, mysterious, vicious, tender and erotic.
When did you first meet Benge? What brought you to work with Benge on this project and did you work primarily in his studio?
Went down the studio after I’d heard ‘Twenty Systems’. Started work there shortly afterwards. From that recording, you could hear someone who was able to let the synths sound like themselves. That’s been the challenge all along.
How did you decide what gear to use, given his massive studio set up?
Whatever sounded right. Ben would often set up something initially on one machine, then we’d choose and add various other keyboards as we went on.
How is he as a collaborative partner to write with?
Really good – Intelligent, knowledgeable, technically blinding. He does remind me of Conny Plank. Same generosity and ability, same civilized manner – even looks similar – and there’s quite a scene developing around that Hoxton studio.
Are your values and visions similar?
I think so. Though I know Ben would be more abstract – and I’d like to encourage that. I always seem to veer into songwriting. It would be good to let that go at times and see what occurs, There’s something mighty interesting around that particular corner.
Were the songs on this album written in the studio or beforehand?
In the studio. Occasionally I brought in an idea or two, but we always developed it in the studio.
Did you have a particular conceptual starting point for song and lyric writing on his album?
Songs were most often generated in response to Ben’s beautiful, rich arpeggios and patterns. Themes basically concern a man, a woman and a city. Tried to make most of the vocals sound like a crackling phonecall from a lost city, or some sudden electrical ghost too close to your ear.
How did Mira from LADYTRON become involved in writing?
I’ve wanted to do a song with her for some time. These particular circumstances seemed right – London analogue studio. We invited her to the studio. She was tough, friendly, gentle, critical and contributing.
Did you co-conceive ‘Watching A Building On Fire’ together?
Yes – She brought in some great monosynth parts. You couldn’t fail to get something good out of them. We just worked on the first one. Mira did vocals and made some useful suggestions about the arrangement. There are several riffs left. Almost an album’s worth still there.
There seems to be something of the classic torch cabaret about it… was that an aesthetic you were aiming for?
Yes – but a different take on that. Mira has a great voice and she can instantly create a mood The story emerged from that – I just listened and responded.
Do you program synths yourself?
Oh yes, but in Benge’s territory I leave that to him. I brought in all my old ARP patches, so we’d use them as starting points, and we’d often select sounds and work through them together on other synths. You also need an effects chain that takes some time to set up and Ben is also very good at that.
After sampling everything Benge’s studio has to offer, what are your fave synths and why?
Korg Mono/Poly, Roland CR78, ARP Odyssey, Moog Modular, Crumar. Yamaha CS 80… the big Moog Modular is central, but its so massive and valuable.
Given the amazing back projections from the Roundhouse show, and the film/music tie up in DNA, what do you think about musical artists use of visual media?
If it’s used well, it can enlarge the music by providing a sort of parallel world to it. At worst, it diminishes the music by confining through direct illustration.
Do you think strong visuals are needed to accompany your music. and do you still get involved much in the production of the videos?
I hope they don’t need it – but I do think the music lends itself to some sorts of cinematic treatment. You have to step away and trust people you know are good. The themes have been set already, through the songs. It’s fascinating to see how really good artists like Jonathan Barnbrook or Karborn can interpret and augment these. They know how to make the songs bigger.
Why is there such a distinct change in the treatment of your vocals on ‘Interplay’, both in vocal range and fx compared to say ‘Metamatic’?
Your voice changes over the years. I guess you learn a few things and keep the appropriate ones.
What is the meaning of the title and of the title track ‘Interplay’? Is it an ode to synthesis? Or something else again?
Something like that – but more to do with the way people work.
Do you know what you are going to make before you sit down to write? Or is it a case of just seeing what comes out?
You can often end up with something opposite to the original intention. It’s all part of the fun.
Do you see yourself as a musician with a day job or a lecturer with a hobby?
I think I’m someone who can throw out reasonably effective images. That’s become my job in life. Art School gave me a very useful way of thinking. I’d like to pass some of that on if I can.
Coming from the north and living in London, do you have a take on the state of Britain now?
Do you think of yourself as a northerner still and does that affect people’s opinion or perception of you?
I don’t, and it does.
How do you feel about Cameron’s Britain?
It isn’t Cameron’s Britain.
Do you feel more greatly a part of something (student protests, overthrow of the Forests bill etc) or more alienated from this Britain?
Oh I feel very British, but equally connected to events here, as to the rest of the world. It’s all suddenly got much closer. Media I guess. We have to figure out our position on everything very quickly now, because so much is happening and visible.
Why ‘& THE MATHS’? Is Benge ‘THE MATHS’? If so, why?
THE MATHS is Benge, plus a sort of loose crew of Serafina, JeanGa and we hope, Hannah Peel. We make nicely ferocious music. As far as I understand Benge’s intentions, the idea is a sort of Shoreditch Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Angular Urban Noise for Now.
Do you feel you’ve done a few collaborations and may need to work alone for a while, or do you have future collaborations already in the works?
I’m doing three albums at the moment – all collaborations. Plus one completely on my own, then another with Steve D’Agostino and several female singers. That’s five – and they’ve all got to be finished this year.
Of your previous collaborations, do you have any you favour or remember fondly and if so why?
I remember all of ’em fondly. Working with HAROLD BUDD on ‘Translucence‘ and ‘Drift Music’ was pretty special. He is one of my heroes and I learnt a great deal from him. Recording that track ‘Spoken Roses’ was one of the highlights of my entire career in music. It just appeared slowly and rolled around the room like a big, illuminated ferris wheel. The other moment was recording Robin Simon and Duncan Bridgeman’s solo on ‘Walk Away’ on ‘The Garden’ sessions. Complete electrical chemistry. The hair really stood up on my head. Moments like that will alter you forever.
Working with Robin Guthrie was a liberation as well as an education – I’d wanted to work with COCTEAU TWINS for years. I think Liz Fraser is one of Britain’s best ever singers and he is one of our most magical musicians. He can easily throw out complete soundscapes and it’s such a pleasure to sing into it all. We made my first effortless album. There’s huge amount left to explore there.
How do you work? Do you work in reaction to stimulus and ideas or do you have an idea which drives you towards putting it down in a studio?
I’ve got lots of themes and ideas, none of which I’ve ever succeeded in properly realizing. Meanwhile I’m changing, and so is the world, so I keep on adjusting the goalposts. Occasionally I get close enough to encourage me to keep on shooting at the goal.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to JOHN FOXX
Special thanks to Steve Malins at Random PR
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS ‘Interplay’ is released by Metamatic Records.
Text and Interview by Nix Lowrey
21st March 2011