Liquid Courage: An Interview with Alan Wilder of Recoil

Posted: March 31, 2000 by Sean Flinn in Interviews, Music
Tags: , , ,

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

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