Archive for March, 2000

Recoil's Alan Wilder

Alan Wilder, the driving force behind Recoil and former musical director of Depeche Mode

When, in a previous life, your band has sold out the famed Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., and comparable venues worldwide, racked up scads of platinum records and hit the Billboard Top 10 twice, the temptation to rest on your laurels should be overwhelming. Unless you’re Alan Wilder and you’re more concerned with the quality of your creative output than the quantity of albums or concert tickets you sell. Then you do the unthinkable and walk away from one of the most successful pop groups of the last 20 years (Depeche Mode) to pursue what has long been a side project (Recoil) that bears little chance of pop-chart success.

In which case, you roll up your sleeves, flip on your PC, learn some HTML and promote your latest record your damn self.

“It’s very important from a pure promotion and marketing point of view, which I’m quite happy to admit we need, ” Wilder said of using the Internet to promote Liquid, his breathtaking new record under the Recoil moniker. “So from that point of view, to use the Internet is vital for projects that are perceived as difficult. And that’s not really the music’s fault, but on radio, you’re not going to get Recoil music played. That’s a problem with radio. And so I recognize that I need the Internet. I need the one place where you’ve got total choice.”

“I recognize that I need the Internet. I need the one place where you’ve got total choice.”

It was yearning for freedom of choice that drove Wilder to leave Depeche Mode in 1996. That same need to be master of his own musical destiny compelled him to devote himself full time to Recoil, a project he’d long used as a way to explore avenues not open to him by Depeche Mode’s rigid commitment to making alternative pop music. But while most artists who split away from groups do so in order to seize the songwriting spotlight, Wilder, a classically trained musician whose played in synth-based bands since his teens, embraced Recoil as a method of exploring new sound forms. In that sense, he plays much the same role in Recoil as he did in Depeche Mode, albeit with far more creative control.

“I don’t think of myself as a songwriter,” he mused. “And I don’t even think that, even though I’ve got sort of writing credits on this album, I’ve written ‘songs’ as such. What I’ve done is made some music. And we’ve ended up with what you could call songs, I suppose, because they have words and some kind of structure. But I’m certainly not a natural songwriter, and I’ve come to recognize that’s not where my best skill is. My skill … has more to do with orchestration and structuring and being a catalyst for other people’s performances. So we end up with something that approaches ‘songs,’ but they’re nothing like the kinds of songs that I may have attempted to write in the early Depeche Mode days, for example.”

Call it playing to one’s strengths. As an orchestrator and catalyst, Wilder has brought Recoil to its apex with Liquid, creating an album that, while dark and brooding, is miles more ambitious than anything his former band ever attempted.


I recognize that I need the Internet. I need the one place where you’ve got total choice.

And his aesthetic is catchy. Moby, Curve front woman Toni Halliday, Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy and N.Y.C. spoken-word performer Maggie Estep have all contributed their voices to past Recoil projects (1992’s Bloodline and 1997’s Unsound Methods). Liquid boasts the most impressive — or at least the most intriguing — lineup yet: Spoken-word performers Nicole Blackman and Samantha Coerbell, virtuoso vocalist Diamanda Galàs and even complete unknown Rosa Torres all deliver powerful, often chilling performances on the album. Ironically, the degree to which Wilder works with “outsiders” has never been taken for granted by critics or fans.

“Most people have this idea that I’m a total control freak. And an element of that is true, ” he remarked. “I certainly want to be in control of the project, and I am something of a perfectionist, etc. However, the ironic thing is, I suppose, or the paradoxical thing, is that, actually, I’ve ended up working with many more people on this project than I did when I was in a group. In fact, what I try to do is choose people I think are talented and good at what they do and then give them freedom to do their thing and not dictate to them. So I have ultimate control over everything, but I don’t dictate. That means allowing them to write their words because that’s what I can’t do naturally. So why get someone in to do that and then tell them what to do?”

Which is not to say that Wilder doesn’t provide any direction whatsoever in the studio. Some performances require a little more direction than others because the conceptual demands of the songs are quite high. “Breath Control,” for example, which tells the story of a sadomasochistic relationship gone horribly sour, required a particularly demanding performance from vocalist Nicole Blackman. According to Liquid’s accompanying press release, “Wilder and engineer PK pushed Blackman to the very brink of exhaustion, even having her run around the studio gardens to evoke authentic panting” for the song.

The process, while oddly involving, produced exquisite results. “Breath Control” is one of the album’s finest, albeit most unsettling, offerings, a sleek conglomeration of Wilder’s wicked, churning electronic bass lines and well-placed sound effects and Blackman’s breathless, alternately damaged and detached vocals.

Other performances required a different approach, one guided by the hand of the technology. Wilder actually located vocalist Rosa Torres, whose Catalonian whispers pepper the sinister “Vertigen,” via the Internet, through a post on the Recoil Web site.

“I had this track that had a very exotic feel or flavor to it, and I just thought, ‘Well, a foreign voice, a foreign language would sound great in here,” Wilder explained. “So I advertised on our Web site for fans, really, just to send in any tapes they had of themselves speaking in their native tongue. Initially I was only thinking maybe [of using it] as a background sound, but after I received Rosa’s tape — and she’s Catalonian, so she speaks Catalan [a Spanish dialect] — it was so good, it had such a wonderful sensual quality, I felt it had to be at the forefront of the music for this particular song.”

As this anecdote suggests, the Net plays a vital role for Recoil — and not just for promotion. Wilder even serves as the de facto Webmaster of Recoil’s official site (named “Shunt,” after a song on Unsound Methods), a role he assumed two years ago as a matter of crisis resolution. “The funny thing was, initially, a fan was going to set it up and do it for us,” he recounted. “And he dumped us right at the last moment, after I’d been advertising that this Web site was coming and coming and coming and saying, ‘It’ll be up next week,’ and so on. He disappeared off the face of the planet, and I was left in a situation where I had to learn how to program HTML in about a week and get this Web site up online. I did a crash course, and it was the best thing that ever happened. I’m really glad that happened because now, being able to program your own Web site — it’s quite a lot of work, but I quite enjoy it. And the main point is that the fans really enjoy it because they know that it comes direct from the artist.”

“It’s difficult to create aware-ness when you’re up against a brick wall from certain elements of the media.”

It’s apparent to anyone who’s logged on to Shunt that connecting with fans is important to Wilder. Recoil’s music is challenging enough that no amount of corporate PR will foist it into the narrow, heavily formatted spectrum of mainstream radio or MTV. Promotionally, a heavy Web presence makes sense for Recoil. But Wilder’s thinking runs fathoms deeper than that; he uses the site to ensure that Recoil remains accessible to anyone willing to give its music a chance. He goes the extra mile on Shunt, offering up a staggering volume of background and technical information, images, sound samples and, most interestingly, transcriptions of a monthly Q&A that Wilder conducts via e-mail with anyone who cares to write in.

“What’s frustrating is when people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you had a record out,’ or, ‘I didn’t even know you had a music project,'” he said of his main motivation to involve himself heavily with Shunt. “And that happens a lot because it’s difficult to create awareness when you’re up against a brick wall from certain elements of the media. Which is why the Internet is so important.”

In the end, it’s all about awareness and availability, the two benefits that the Internet offers to musicians who are willing to do their own dirty work. Thus, visitors to Shunt can contact Wilder, find out just about everything they could want to know about him (Shoe size? 8), download video and audio clips and, most importantly, order a copy of Liquid through the Mute Bank, Mute Records’ online mail order service.

“My only hope is to make people aware of it, and let them make their own mind,” Wilder said, optimistically. “If they choose to like it, great. If not, fine.”

Buy Recoil’s music at Amazon.com

Visit Recoil’s Web site: Shunt

Visit Recoil’s label: Mute Records

RATING: 7/10

recoil - liquidAbout 15 seconds into Recoil’s dark and unsettling new album, Liquid, all questions about Alan Wilder’s departure from Depeche Mode in 1997 are answered. Something must’ve been simmering inside the man for years and finally reached a boiling point. It spilled over in ’97 onto Unsound Methods, Wilder’s first post-Mode Recoil release (1+2, Hydrology and Bloodline all appeared during Mode’s breaks from recording and touring). It seems to have cohered into a dish all its own on Liquid, an album rife with high points and contradictions that belong uniquely to Wilder and have nothing to do with his former self.

The most glaring of these have to do with the band’s identity. Recoil is unquestionably Wilder’s project; he conceives the albums’ themes, writes the music, slaves away at the mixing desk and — here’s where the contradictions begin to creep in — corrals his collaborators, of whom there are many. Because, while this is Wilder’s band, no single track on Liquid features Wilder alone; every song spotlights a guest vocalist, from the creepily alluring Nicole Blackman to the peerless Diamanda Galas. And though the final product is excellent, cohesive, thought-provoking and unquestionably of higher critical merit than anything D’Mode ever attempted, Wilder’s compulsion to collaborate leaves one wondering what he’s hiding from. He’s stepped into the limelight, only to fade back into the shadows.

And Liquid has shadows aplenty in which Wilder might lurk; the album further exhibits his fascination with the dark side of human nature, into which Wilder dipped his toes on previous Recoil outings (1992’s Bloodline and 1997’s Unsound Methods). Loosely bound together by two themes — a man’s recollection of his life, triggered by his involvement in a life-threatening airplane crash (an event Wilder actually witnessed), and the texture of visceral elements central to life itself: liquids (blood, water, adrenalin, semen, alcohol, etc.) — Liquid‘s songs plunge the listener headlong into a pool of deeply disturbed memory. It also brings together a hefty roster of vocal and lyrical collaborators along for the trip.

The most formidable of these is one of the least known: Samantha Coerbell, a New Yorker with Trinidadian roots, lays down fierce, gritty tales of poor urban life on “Last Chance for Liquid Courage” and “Supreme,” perhaps the last thing anyone would expect to hear on an album by a leather-clad Brit who used to muss his hair with truckloads of mousse. Less surprising — but no less gripping — is the vocal and lyrical contribution of Rosa Torres, a Recoil fan from Barcelona, Spain, who landed her part on Liquid by responding to an ad on Shunt, the official Recoil Web site, for vocalists to send in recordings of them speaking/singing in their native language. On “Vertigen,” Torres’s Catalan dialect and wraith-like voice blend unsettlingly well with background moans supplied by Diamanda Galas. And Galas, an inimitable vocalist with a four octave range toting an epidemic-sized cache of righteous rage, supplies the rest of the album’s finest moments, backing up the sampled Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet on “Jezebel” (think Moby’s “Natural Blues” or Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” without any of the insipid feel-good vibes) and taking center stage on the album’s first single, “Strange Hours.”

The two-part “Black Box” bookends the album, the confused voice of Reto Buhle (about whom I know little; the All Music Guide lists him only as a photographer involved with Frank Tovey and the Pyros for one album) recounting in explicit first-person detail the airplane crash Wilder witnessed. Here, Wilder’s contradictions manifest themselves again: There’s just something about timpani drums — you know, the kettle-shaped drums that resonate deeper than a bass drum — that make symphonies sound epic and pop-oriented material sound like the march of the Oompa Loompas. For all his classical training, Wilder can’t pull it off, either, when, on “Black Box 1,” he employs timpanies to underscore the drama of the thematically central plane crash. Reto Buhle’s Eurotrash accent doesn’t help much either, and the track plays like the tragicomic tale of a vacation gone wrong for a German tourist in black socks and sandals, en route to Disneyland.

Here, Wilder’s default mode, “team player,” works against him. Recoil won’t truly belong to him — nor will it fully succeed — until he takes a final bold step and emerges from the shadows as his own best songwriting partner. Still, Liquid runs fathoms deeper than anything D’Mode ever contemplated.


Buy this album from Amazon.com

Visit Recoil’s Web site: Shunt

Visit Recoil’s Label: Mute Records

“We’re the first and only for a lot of things on Projekt,” says Ryan Lum, the multi-instrumentalist and driving force behind Love Spirals Downwards, darkwave label Projekt Record’s top-selling act. Lum is sipping on a soda in a RadioSpy conference room and choosing his words carefully. He’s speaking of his band’s use of saxophone riffs on a song from its latest release, Temporal, a career retrospective that includes a number of unreleased tracks. Lum was concerned that Sam Rosenthal, Projekt Record’s sometimes finicky founder, might be less than enthusiastic about the sax track. Rosenthal, himself the leader of a Projekt band, Modernist goths Black Tape for a Blue Girl, is not a person Lum is anxious to displease and hasn’t been entirely happy with the evolution of LSD’s sound. Try as we might, neither Lum nor I can think of another Projekt band that has ever used a saxophone on one of its songs.

The riffs are a bit jarring to hear on an album by a band that built its reputation on Lum’s gorgeously gauzy, almost formless instrumental vignettes and Suzanne Perry’s soaring vocals. But then, the Los Angeles-based band’s unexpected transition from ethereal bliss pop to electronica in the late ’90s was, for some, stunning enough to prepare them for anything the band might do.

As sumptuously comfortable as LSD’s early work may have been, neither the band nor its label, a stubbornly independent outfit that Rosenthal started as a way to distribute cassettes of his solo music, has ever resisted change wholeheartedly.

“[Rosenthal] actually made a positive comment about the saxophone. He said, ‘You know, it fits somehow,” recounts Anji Bee, Ryan’s self-described “partner-in-crime” and recent collaborator on everything from album art to vocals. Lum’s experimentation — with his sound and with the band’s direction — initially met with grudging acceptance from Rosenthal, who eventually warmed to the band’s new sound.

“It’s not his cup of tea,” Lum says of Rosenthal’s reaction to the band’s shift in sound from “shoegazer,” the ethereal style of feedback- and synth-drenched pop defined by British bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and the Cocteau Twins, to drum ‘n’ bass. “But we more or less have artistic freedom to do as we please. I guess being the top seller on the label doesn’t hurt us in that,” Lum says with a chuckle.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that both band and label are willing to adapt themselves to the ever-shifting dynamic of the musical marketplace, stylistically and commercially. Since he formed LSD in 1991, Lum has demonstrated a consistent willingness to embrace change within the group and the innumerable contexts in which they work — style being the most apparent of these but the emergence of the digital music marketplace running close on its heels.

“That’s something I’ve thought a lot about recently, and I’m not sure what to conclude,” Lum says contemplatively. “Check back in five years and see what’s up,” he says with a wry chuckle, knowing full well that five years is an eternity in Internet time.

But Lum, who works for a multimedia company that builds Web pages for major-market radio stations, is fully aware of the Internet’s potential to expand his band’s fan base and the need for independent musicians to move fast in order to capture an audience in the overcrowded digital music arena. On that front, LSD is already moving at light speed.

“Our site, Lovespirals.com, is a great source of information, and we update the news frequently, the guest book and all that stuff. You can buy our stuff, and you can check out audio from all of our albums. And we’re going through and updating that, album by album. Right now, from the latest album, Temporal, [the site has] some really nice, high-quality audio that you can hear, even on a 56k modem stream. It’s much better than the RealAudio that we, or most people, have had in the past. That’s one thing that I’ve always hated about Internet audio: You spend a year and a half to make this great album, put all this money and time and love into it, and you want to show people on the Internet. And it’s just these crappy samples.”

“It’s like bad AM radio,” adds Bee, who handles a lot of the day-to-day work on the Love Spirals Downwards Web site — answering fan mail, fulfilling orders from their store and administrating their forums.

“Yeah, it’s horrible,” Lum agrees. “But now, I can put something up and say, ‘Yeah. This is it. Check it out. In stereo even. It sounds great.'”

And for Lum, the rapid improvement of streaming audio quality has brightened the already blinding future of digital music distribution.

“I’m glad now, finally, that broadband is coming, so we can pump more bandwidth to people. But even now, the technology of encoding audio for the Internet has vastly improved over, say, two years ago. I think you’re going to see a lot this year with audio, like with RadioSpy and all is a great example of how the Internet is finally ready for audio — or audio is ready for the Internet. So now’s the time.”

Perhaps due to the Internet’s ever-increasing reach, LSD’s Web presence enables them not only to stay in touch with their fans (“You don’t have to print up a dumb newsletter or anything like that. You just put it up on the Web. It’s right there; you can give them way more than you ever could in a newsletter,” Lum explains) but has also helped them cement a fan base around the globe.

“It’s kind of interesting to see which regions seem to especially enjoy Love Spirals Downwards because you see a lot of [e-mail] from Spain and Italy,” Bee ponders. “It seems like they really like them over there. And of course, there are so many people in Mexico that are just in love with them. They write every week: ‘Please come play again! We miss you!'”

This solid support has, in turn, given the band a way to convincingly make their case for stylistic freedom. Fan enthusiasm for the group’s work, past and present, made Projekt Records demonstrably more willing to trust Lum’s artistic inclinations.

“I guess, as we proved with Flux, even though we made an album that’s so different from anything else on the label, people didn’t complain. [Rosenthal] though that people were going to say that Projekt [a label that typically markets itself to the goth and industrial community] or someone sold out, and none of that came out. So I guess he thought it was cool. He got a little paranoid at first, but mellowed out.”

Mellow seems to suit Lum just fine. While he has recently embraced the sometimes frenetic style of drum ‘n’ bass, electronica’s most energetic and quickly mutating sub-genre, he strives to maintain the thoroughly gentle and vibrantly warm ambience that made Love Spirals Downwards darlings of the dark electronic underground. This effort shines through in his appearances as a DJ (which have replaced LSD concerts as live exhibitions of his music) at the Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif. clubs where he regularly spins his own brand of drum ‘n’ bass.

“Most drum ‘n’ bass I don’t like, actually,” he explains. “A lot of it sounds like crazy machines gone nuts, and I’m into the more smooth atmospheric and jazzy drum ‘n’ bass. So yeah, it fits in perfectly with my sound. I guess that’s been the common theme with my [work], an atmospheric sound, and drum ‘n’ bass took the atmospheric sound that I like and just went to town with it — on the atmospheric side of drum ‘n’ bass. It’s rare that you see a whole genre of music that’s dedicated to atmosphere. And when I found that years back, it was like, ‘Yes! Right on! I can do this.'”

The transition from shoegazer goth-pop to drum ‘n’ bass unfolds more smoothly before the ear than the eye, a point that Temporal illustrates brilliantly. While technically a “greatest hits” album, Temporal takes on the not-so-obvious task of charting the band’s shift in sound. When heard one after another, LSD’s early, more ambient songs almost beg for the band’s current embrace of intelligent dance music.

“The only thing that’s different with my music is some of the sounds and maybe a little bit of the style,” he agrees. “But the vibe is still the same, meaning that it still comes from the same place. It’s still atmospheric music; it’s just done a little differently. Some [musicians], I think, consciously try to shock people and make a whole new kind of album. I’m not that radical. It’s still the same ‘pretty’ music.”

Buy Lovespirals’s music from Amazon.com

Visit Lovespirals’s Web site

Visit Love Spirals Downwards’s [former] label Projekt Records