Now in its fourth year, the TEC panel interview brings together musicians, DJs and enthusiasts to assess the state of the synth nation. The rendezvous for this year’s discussion was Covent Garden, in the heart of London’s West End.
Joining the panel was Keith Trigwell, a member of Europe’s premier DEPECHE MODE tribute act SPEAK and SPELL. Next up was radio presenter Flip Martian. Also airing their views on all things electro were TEC management Chi Ming Lai and Paul Browne, whilst chairing proceedings once again was TEC’s Steve Gray.
2013 has been a great year for synth music so far, with several of our heritage acts releasing new albums. Two of the biggest were OMD’s ‘English Electric’ and DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Delta Machine’. Which, in your opinion, is the better album?
Keith: For me it’s ‘Delta Machine’. It’s the braver album of the two. DM have circumnavigated the tech and gone back to their musical roots with the bluesy R’n’B thing. But I do think it’s a close call because the OMD is exceptional; it’s a genuine electronic album. If it weren’t for the fact that the DM album is such a brave move away from what they’ve done, then I would say OMD’s would easily be the better album.
Flip: I have issues with the DM album because it sounds like a very rich man being f**king miserable, and I think, “What have you got to be miserable about?” If I want to hear the blues, then I’ll listen to people who are singing the blues based on their work and life experience. I don’t want to hear some rich white boy from Essex who now lives in a mansion in the States singing the blues. It’s fake to me! He’s got millions of quid in the bank. Why can’t he be happy?
DM don’t do happy music. ‘Peace’ was their happy song and look where it got them!
Keith: Yes, that and ‘What’s Your Name?’ *laughs*
Flip: I agree with Keith’s point about it being a brave album to make, but from the comments I’ve read online most DM fans don’t like it, or it takes them 20 listens to appreciate it! Personally I would never try and listen to album in order to try and like it, even if it’s by an established band that I love.
As for the OMD album, it was a lot better than I expected. I listened to their previous album ‘History of Modern’ once and hated it. I realise that this was because it was really an Andy McCluskey album whereas this one is a duo. But ‘English Electric’ is really good, not just re-treading what they’ve done before.
Paul: For me it has to be ‘English Electric’. As a modern OMD album, it is a masterpiece. It’s a complete change of direction from ‘History of Modern’; the sound is much more contemporary; the ideas are much more interesting; there are more tunes on there; it’s mixed and produced better. It stands in step with most modern electronic bands, which is quite an achievement for a band so old.
As for ‘Delta Machine’, I wasn’t too impressed. When I listen to an album, it’s a package deal. It’s not just the songs; it’s the sleeve artwork. The minute I saw the sleeve for ‘Delta Machine’, I thought “no thanks”; it looked terrible. DM artwork these days looks nothing like you’d expect from an electronic band.
Chi: Right, ‘Delta Machine’ is a far better album than ‘Sounds Of The Universe’, so let’s get that out of the way first of all! However, let’s not get carried away; I’ve had trouble enjoying ‘Delta Machine’, but it has its moments. ‘English Electric’, on the other hand, is the best OMD album for 30 years; it’s electronic, it’s modern, it’s melodic. It goes back to their innovative, unconventional song structures and slightly pretentious concepts; ‘Helen of Troy’ and ‘Dresden’ are actually metaphors for McCluskey’s personal life.
As for DM, ‘Welcome To My World’, which is my favourite track on the album, could have been so much better… the synths could have been louder, the mix could have been more dynamic and danceable but it’s so strangely muted. I think Martin Gore is almost embarrassed to write an uptempo dancey tune with synths in. For me, the remixes of the singles are better than the original songs! I think DM are the wrong judges of their own music. It needs that outside influence that Alan Wilder brought in, with ‘Enjoy The Silence’ being the obvious example.
Another major album release to look forward to is GARY NUMAN’s ‘Splinter’, his first proper studio album for 7 years. What are your hopes for this record?
Flip: To be honest, I think GARY NUMAN has wasted a lot of the opportunities he had when he was doing his comeback and regaining his artistic credibility; when artists like NINE INCH NAILS and MARILYN MANSON were mentioning him quite unashamedly and he was being seen as quite cool. He did a really good album with ‘Pure’; that was the one with the most light and shade and depth to it. Since then he’s just gone for weird electronic noises with Ade Fenton, and it drives me up the wall frankly!
If you’re looking for light and shade then his 2011 collaboration with Ade Fenton, ‘Dead Son Rising’, is a good example. It has some beautiful stripped down piano moments…
Flip: Well perhaps I need to give it another listen! But the stuff I did hear was all scrapey noises and thrashing guitars. It all seemed a bit one-dimensional. So as far as ‘Splinter’ goes, I hope it’s a good one and a return to form.
Chi, you’ve already heard the album…
Chi: Yes, I’ve recently interviewed Gary for The Electricity Club, and he said one of the reasons for the album taking so long was “mid-life crisis” type stuff; as well as bringing up a family and being distracted by being a dad. But he said all of those problems had become food for creativity. The album will be a surprise to people…
Flip: Is it country and western? *laughs*
Chi: It’s an extension of ‘Dead Son Rising’ in the sense that it’s a varied album. There are the electro rockers; ‘Who Are You?’ is absolutely fantastic; ‘Love Hurt Bleed’ is really good too, but there’s also this stripped bare stuff, which is going to really surprise. There’s a track called ‘Lost’ which is soulful, and that isn’t a term you’d often use for a GARY NUMAN track! I had to listen to it a few times to check I’d heard what I’d heard. It’s possibly his most significant work since ‘Pure’
Paul: I’ve never been a big Numan fan. However, I appreciate that he’s a founding father of the electronic music scene. His musical style has changed dramatically over the years, and now he has a new generation of fans who are enjoying his new direction. And even the fans who moan about him on the internet will still go out and buy the album regardless so it’s win-win!
Flip: There are no fans who moan quite as much as Numan fans!
Keith: I’m not a devout fan either, but I do have an enormous amount of respect what he’s done. He’s a pioneer, and there aren’t many people on the scene who have as much gravitas as he has; just his name carries it. I’ve heard ‘I Am Dust’ and I think that’s bloody great; it has enormous choruses! I hope that with the new album he gets the recognition he deserves.
Flip: I agree, it would be nice if he before he retires he could release one really great album that was critically acclaimed and people would say “he can still cut it in 2013”.
We’re also seeing some strong new talent emerging this year. Probably the most talked about act is CHVRCHES, who are set to release their debut album in September. Are they worthy of all the praise heaped upon them?
Paul: CHVRCHES are one of the best new bands to come out of the current scene. I’m looking forward to the album. They sound contemporary, unlike other bands who are criticised for harking back to the 80s. They sound modern and exciting, and I haven’t heard a duff track yet.
Chi: Having seen them twice live, they are the real deal. They’re brilliant. They’ve just re- released ‘The Mother We Share’ and I absolutely love it; it’s synthpop perfection. It’s like TAYLOR SWIFT being uprooted to Berlin and being made to listen to ‘Black Celebration’! They do pop songs, but arranged in a vibrant, exciting, electronic manner.
Keith: I really like what I’ve seen; she’s got a great voice, but I’m just not sure if there’s enough of their DNA in their music yet. I really hope we’ll see something good coming through.
Flip: I thought ‘Lies’ was a real breath of fresh air, but as time’s gone on I find myself going back to the first couple of tracks. Also, I’m naturally averse to hype and CHVRCHES have had lots of it, but I’ll listen to the album with an open mind!
Which other new acts have caught your eye (or ear) this year?
Flip: This year KIRA has been a big one for me, and of course SINESTAR. In fact the two are connected because I saw KIRA support SINESTAR early last year and went home and bought their album and EP on the strength of it. I also like the new SPACEBUOY EP and finally MODOVAR; their album is fantastic and I’d highly recommend it.
Chi: Funnily enough there’s some great new talent coming out of North America. One band is FEATHERS, who some have called the female DEPECHE MODE, but actually they are more like post-apocalyptic BANGLES!
Keith: Post-apocalyptic BANGLES?! *dissolves into laughter*
Chi: …or Emo BELINDA CARLISLE! Anyway, they’re very good. And there’s another electronic band out of Texas called ELEVEN: ELEVEN. But the biggest surprise has been an act called TRUST. TEC discovered them thanks to Deb Danahay and their album is a real grower. North America seems to be where it’s happening at the moment.
Paul: It’s funny you should mention J-Pop… *laughs*
Flip and Keith: Nobody mentioned J-Pop!
Paul: …because I run a J-Pop website. But going back to the electronic scene, I agree about TRUST; they do the dark electronic thing very well. It’s filthy synthesizer music. It sounds like LEONARD COHEN fronting an electronic band. There’s also a solo artist called FLAVIAKE from Moldova. She has a light electropop style but also uses things like flutes. She mixes acoustic and electronic to make a very accessible sound. Finally, GIRL ONE & THE GREASE GUNS, who are a new electronic act and sound a bit like OMD. I have high hopes for them too.
This is also shaping up to be a good year for live music. What have been your highlights so far?
Chi: KARIN PARK at The Lexington was absolutely fantastic. It was something different; a heavy metal drummer (who happens to be her brother) and a 6 foot 7 inch model! And a personal highlight for me was seeing VILE ELECTRODES support OMD in Cologne.
But gig of the year would have to be AUSTRA in Hoxton; as a live act they are very engaging.
Keith: DEPECHE MODE of course were brilliant, but the best live act for me was MESH at the O2 Academy Islington. That was a really strong gig. The automated intros, the singer standing at the back for the last song, I just stood there and thought, “this is a bloody good thing for anyone to aspire to”.
Flip: I would also say MESH. I saw them in Bristol and they were awesome. I was there with SINESTAR, shortly before they were confirmed as the support act for the German gigs, and by the end of the gig they were standing there with their mouths open! I also saw SINESTAR play in London and they were excellent. Iain was on great form and it showed how great their songs are. Finally, I have to mention HEAVEN 17 at BAS2013. They were absolutely f**king awesome and as for the singer Billie Godfrey… I have never been so stunned by a vocal performance ever! It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Do you think that the new wave of synth festivals like BAS, I-Synth and Synthetic City are good for the scene? Are they helping to promote new acts?
Flip: Yes, undoubtedly. I went to my first Bas event this year, and there was a very friendly vibe there. And the I-Synth 1 festival in Lille was the biggest party ever! It was such a blast. It was almost to the point where the music was secondary to the event itself; people just wanted to get together and have a good time. Bas was another example of that, and I think the Synthetic City event in October has good vibes around it to. If that takes off then there will be further events around the country. There is a scene building, and I think the radio shows help too, whether it’s Dave Charles, or Rob Harvey or me, people meet socially online and come along to the live events; one has fed the other. There’s a real sense of community there.
Chi: The social side is great, but it concerns me that it’s always the same collective of bands playing these events. Another concern is that if musicians try to organise events themselves, there will quite often be a hidden agenda. The Electricity Club had its time wasted by two musicians trying to set up an aborted festival last year; they had no idea about any of the new acts I talked about or anything! At TEC, we’ve run two live events but haven’t done a third yet because we don’t feel that we should repeat the line-ups we’ve had before; we want TEC003 to be something special. I think there is a danger of things becoming complacent. It’s always the same faces and the scene is not as big as people think it is.
Paul: I would agree that these festivals are very insular, and if event organisers have no idea about the contemporary electronic scene, then that is extremely concerning. As for the bands who play these festivals, to quote a famous bard, they “say nothing to me about my life”!
TEC recently ran an article mourning the disappearance of MIRRORS, who, despite an outstanding debut album and record label support, failed to gain mainstream success. Just how difficult is it for new synth acts to break through in this country?
Chi: In the case of MIRRORS, there was the usual ambivalence from the real music brigade, but the electronic community wasn’t interested either. A lot of that was insular; all of a sudden this band came out of nowhere with a record deal, videos, suits, the works and I think people were jealous.
Flip: Or perhaps people just didn’t think they were very good! To be honest they had the image and packaging, but the music didn’t really move me.
Chi: For acts like VILE ELECTRODES, it’s taken them three years to make their debut album because they’re funding it themselves, making the videos themselves, doing the promotion and they have day jobs! CURXES are the same. But we love both of these acts because they invest their time in making their songs sound as good as possible, and doing the videos and visual images; it’s the complete package. Any band who says, “visuals aren’t important”… well I’m sorry, it does matter!
Keith: You’re right, it’s enormously important. With DEPECHE MODE, it’s always been about the synergy between the imagery and the music. It’s like 2 +2 = 5, and for me the extra “1” is the bit that resonates with me.
Chi: For a band to get noticed by TEC, they need to have a good photo. You don’t have to be the best looking band in the world to have a strong visual image! *laughs*
Also, crowd funding won’t work with new acts because you actually need a fanbase to start with! You need to have been around for a few years and be a known act, for example IAMX or LADYTRON’s Helen Marnie. You can’t start completely from scratch with crowd funding.
Our good friend John Von Ahlen, who sat on this very panel back in 2010, has just released an album of electro cover versions under his PARRALOX moniker. There have been some memorable cover versions of synth classics over the years. What is your favourite synth cover version?
Flip: MARILYN MANSON has done some great covers, for example ‘Sweet Dreams’. For me the mark of a good cover version is where somebody takes a song and does their own thing with it; they don’t try and re-tread what was done before.
Chi: I like MARILYN MANSON’s version of ‘Tainted Love’ although that’s a cover of a cover! But I like what BEF have done, which is to make a lot of soul tracks electronic. My favourite is a cover of BILL WITHERS’ ‘Same Love’ which has been done by DAVID J ROCH, and also STEVIE WONDER’s track ‘Every Time I See You I Go Wild’, sung by KIM WILDE. And I love HEAVEN 17’s cover of ASSOCIATES ‘Party Fears Two’; it’s completely different from the original.
Paul: For me, it’s GARY JULES’ cover version of ‘Mad World’, which caused controversy at the time because it was so radically different.
TORUL have done a great cover version of ‘Mad World’ too. It takes it in quite a dark direction…
Keith: Well that’s the basis of a good song. If you can reproduce it in any number of ways then the musical notation must be very valid. My favourite is ROYKSOPP’s cover of ‘Ice Machine’; it’s so sharp and has a beautiful vocal.
Text and Interview by Steve Gray
Panel Photos by Richard Price
16th September 2013