Archive for January, 2002

GoldfrappIf Marlene Dietrich were alive today, she’d be the world’s sexiest 100-year-old. She might also have something to croak about Alison Goldfrapp, the namesake of the British duo whose 2000 album, Felt Mountain, conjures up all of the mystique, class and modernist boudoir beckoning of Dietrich’s cabaret classics. There’s a good bit more in there too — both Goldfrapp and her musical partner, Will Gregory, flash influences like Dietrich used to flash her gams; a bit of John Barry here, a bit of Bacharach there, a lifetime of synth-pop radio listening everywhere. Somewhere in there it latches onto its own identity – a slinky, ermine sound shot through with Dusseldorf pulses and Bavarian dawns – that, some day, people will hear in other music and describe as “distinctly Goldfrappian.”

Wait. Start back a few years. A college-aged girl is cutting the odd track with Tricky (the sumptuous “Pumpkin” from Maxinquaye), Orbital and Add N to (X) (“Revenge of the Black Regent,” if our sources are correct) and catches the ear of a film / television scorer with a yearning to do something less … celluloid. A partnership is formed, a stunning record is born, a contract with Mute is signed.

Cut to November, 2001. The scene: a cabaret-esque nightclub in Hollywood, Calif. (The Knitting Factory, to whose gracious publicity staff Choler owes a giant debt), where the aforementioned film / television scorer is chatting with journalists prior to taking the stage with Ms. G, a violinist in Leiderhosen and various and sundry though quite capable) musicians. Once on stage, the quintet will proceed to drop all jaws. Gregory will conjure out of his keys an atmosphere so thick you’ll swear you see white stags leaping out of a misty forest just off stage left, while the ludicrously garmented violinist will, at one point, play so furiously that resin rises from his strings like smoke. And Goldfrapp … at this point, words fail. Taking the stage clad in faux military garb, replete with a smart hat and a short olive drab mini skirt, the goldilocked Goldfrapp will overcome throat problems to make noises weirder and more beautiful than any audience really has a right to hear — even this one, which seems appreciative. But all that is epilogue, really. We were talking about a composer and a journalist and a photographer, camped out at a table in a nightclub’s restaurant, speaking to each other over the din of some free jazz thing or another playing on the PA and trying to work out the ascent of Felt Mountain with no Sherpas in sight.

Listen to the full interview:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sean: My first questions really have to do with the formation of the band. I know you guys both have long individual histories working in music, but I was curious about how the band came together and why you decided to work together. What was the catalyst that kicked you guys together as Goldfrapp the duo?

Will Gregory: We both had been in music doing various things, as you do trying to earn your living as a musician. It seems like you have to be flexible, to say, at the very least. Looking back on it, I guess you could say that we’d come to a point in our lives, respectively, where we felt we needed to just stop doing all those little things that feel like a compromise, and try and do something that feels like it’s really what you want to do. But at the time, I think it was just that I heard her voice. I heard her singing on a very early version of a song that later became [the Goldfrapp track] “Human,” and it sounded great. I just thought, “This is someone I’d really like to meet. Wherever she is, I want to be there too – because I feel like I already am.” I just felt that there was a connection there.

It was a very inviting sound – an inviting voice?

Very. I mean, because you’re always on the lookout. I think that, having done a lot of writing for TV and film and stuff, you begin to realize that, OK it’s fun, the idea that you’re a chameleon – that you can put on any fancy dress music pastiche costume – but actually, what’s more interesting is finding your own voice, your own style. I got to a point where I think I’d found that, to some extent, and I wasn’t usually allowed to do it, because it wasn’t appropriate to the project. But when I heard Allison, I thought, “That really is appropriate,” because wherever I am, I imagine that she can be there too. So I phoned her up and said, “Why don’t you come and maybe I can get you down on the pretext of doing a demo – I’ve got to do a demo for a film thing – but the same time we can see what happens. We can check each other out.” And that’s what we did. I think we had a good time. I think the song we demoed was dreadful, but we lost interest in that pretty quickly and started doing our own thing.

After that, we spoke a lot on the phone and we also sent each other — because, at the time, I lived in Bath and she lived in London – compilation cassettes of our favorite tracks, just to see where our heads were. I remember she put some Add N To (X) on one, and I thought my tape machine was busted, because it was making this incredible screeching noise. I was like, “Wow! What is that? I’ve never heard … maybe it’s broken.” And it turns out that it was Add N to (X) [specifically, the track “Revenge of the Black Regent” from the band’s second album, Avant Hard].

I think they have that effect on the uninitiated. It can be a little bit of a shock.

It was a shock – but it was just the sort of shock I was hoping for, I suppose.

Now, when you guys started working together, the chemistry happened pretty much right off the bat? The ideas were flowing easily?

God, I don’t know. I’ve not had much experience working [with other people]. It was intense. That’s all I can really tell you. I think that the first thing we wrote was “Lovely Head,” and that was lucky in a way because we were really pleased with it. We wanted to continue in that vein, and that set a kind of benchmark. And the next track we wrote was “Horse Tears,” and that set another kind of direction up – the kind of slow space that we really enjoy – that intensity. So between those two, we really kind of covered the gamut, and they ended up being the first and last track on the album, but they were actually the first two things we wrote. I think that that was lucky for us, because it meant that we had a standard, and we had a benchmark and we knew that, if we’d written tracks as good as that – we felt they were good – then we had our work cut out. After that, it was sometimes harder, because we were trying to recapture that direction.

After working together for a period, have you found that you’ve established any set patterns for writing songs? Does she [Alison Goldfrapp] come up with lyrics and come to you with the lyrics first, and then you start composing music? Or is it more of a meshing of ideas together? Or do you try to mix things up and keep it fresh?

All I can really tell you is that we both write the music together, and Alison writes the lyrics. How we get there, I don’t really know. We haven’t found a formula for doing it. I think that’s probably a good thing. But, at the same time, I’d like to be a fly on a wall with some other songwriters – particularly good ones. I’d like to see how they do it. I was very encouraged – I saw a documentary with Burt Bacharach where he said something to the effect that, “Songwriting is really bloody hard work.” And I thought, “Well, that’s encouraging, because I think it is too.” And they interviewed his second wife, and asked her why they split up, and she said, “It was because we couldn’t agree on the upbeat to a tune – whether it should be a crotchet or a quaver; a quarter note or a half note.” And I thought, “They broke up over that?” It’s a serious, hard business. And if he finds it hard, that makes me feel a bit better.

Well, since you mentioned the songwriter issue and being a fly on the wall, who are some of the songwriters whose walls you’d like to be a fly on? We’ve established Burt Bacharach. But what sort of songwriters do you find yourself admiring and wishing you had more of a window on?

Oh God, anybody who’s written great songs. I suppose Lennon and McCartney – it’d be really interesting the have seen them sing together at a piano. I’m sure either of what they said was nothing close to what actually happened. It’s a subjective thing. Classical composers. I’d like to see how [Enino] Morricone works, because I’ve heard all these wild rumors from Italians who kind of canonize him as a composer. But I’ve heard that he doesn’t compose at the piano, for example, and that he writes directly onto 32 staves of manuscript.

So, he’s just hearing it in his head as he’s putting it down on paper.

Exactly. I’d like to know whether or not it’s true, because I’d like to go up to Morricone and say, “I’ve got a little bit of film footage here. We’ve got 20 minutes. Let’s see what we can do.” Just to see how he did it. I would love to do that. I’ll bet he’s got a piano in there.

Or something. Maybe a kazoo or something to hum along with. You mentioned too that you’d been working on film scores for a long time, and that Goldfrapp was pretty much your venture into doing this full time. Is this what you originally wanted to do? Did you envision yourself, say, 10 or 15 years ago when you were learning to play instruments, being in essentially a pop band – or doing more popular music, as opposed to doing scores.

The thing is, it’s weird, because I don’t think of it as a pop band. What we do is a very strange amalgam of a recital and a pop band.

I guess the word “pop” is a little ill-fitting.

I’m sure it’s true of every band – every band is a little bit different – but I think that, if I’d asked myself, “Will I be playing music that I’m really happy with to people in a live context, who’d come to see it and like it,” then yeah, I’d be very happy with that.

You mentioned that this has other elements in it, besides just the formal identity of “the pop song.” It has the recital identity. You come from a film score background. Alison comes from a fine art painting background. Do you guys ever go into the studio with a visual idea of an atmosphere that you want to create? Kind of an inner cinema that you want to score to?

Yes. Quite often. And I imagine that that’s quite a useful thing, because the English language is not equipped – it does not have words to describe music. I don’t know how journalists manage. I mean, what can you say? Louder, softer, faster, slower? Louder quieter? That’s about it. You have to do it by analogy. We quite often send ourselves into fits of giggles, because we do that – we play that game. “Imagine this is a scene with Audrey Hepburn and she’s on a mountain and she’s lost her knickers.” What ever it is, just to get yourself going, really.

What inspired you guys to cover [Olivia Newton John’s] “Physical?”

Well, I think we both feel about covers that, if you’re going to do one, you shouldn’t do your favorite tune, because it’s been done so well originally. There’re a lot of great covers, but there’re also … If I were to say, “Let’s do ‘The Look of Love’ by Burt Bacharach” – I would never do that because as far as I’m concerned, Dusty Springfield did the seminal performance of that piece, and you’d never want to mess with it. I would say that “Physical,” on the other hand …

… could do with a little sprucing up?

Well, it leaves a little bit of room for development, shall we say?

Well, that makes my next question a little awkward, because it would assume that there are songs of yours that you might think had room for improvement. Who would you like to see cover any of your songs? Do you think there’s any room for re-interpretation of the work that you’ve put down?

Oh God, yes. It must be one of the most flattering things that can happen to anybody, to have someone cover your song. I say that after, you know — if Olivia Newton John is listening … [We both break into laughter here.]

So, God no. I don’t mind. It’s like an idea, isn’t it? A song? And once it’s into the world it leaves its creator and it’s an idea that everyone shares and they can do what they like with it, as long as they pay the royalties. So I don’t think that it’s actually one’s responsibility to even think about that, in a way. But I’d like to here a cover by The Crusaders? I dunno. Something a million miles away from where we are. A dub version by King Tubby.

That reminds me of when Massive Attack had Mad Professor remix the entire Protection album, and he turned a trip-hop album into a complete Reggae / dub album. It didn’t sound anything like what it started out being.

Fantastic!

Now, you guy just released “Pilots” as a single, and I know that they had postponed it in the wake of 9/11. I was wondering what your reaction to some of that was. Did you anticipate that as being appropriate, or was it oversensitive, or …?

I suppose I think that it’s a bit nanny state-ish. Who are people that we have to decide for them how sensitive they are? I don’t know that I go along with that, really. And I’m not interested in it because we didn’t get our record out, but just as a general thing. It seems a bit patronizing to the general public to say, “Oh, we don’t think you’re ready for this. We don’t really want to think about it.” It’s like when you’re on an airplane, they don’t show pictures with planes crashing. That’s OK, You can understand that because you’re on a plane. But in the general world, I mean … we’re grown-ups, aren’t we?

I personally found most of Felt Mountain, especially “Pilots,” to be a very comforting album to listen to, regardless of what had happened on Sept. 11th. But it makes you wonder if the over-sensitivity could have an adverse effect – if people might have drawn some sort of comfort from a song that they’ve taken off the air. I know in the U.S., there was a big controversy with Clear Channel – which owns several radio stations in every major market – publishing a huge list of songs that its DJs were strongly suggested not to play. And on that list were things like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” When you look at the lyrics to a song like that, you think that people might have drawn some inspiration or consolation from hearing it. In being oversensitive, Clear Channel has taken that away.

Well, then you haven to analyze what that word “oversensitive” means. They say, “We’re being sensitive,” and I say, “You’re being censorial.” I don’t know that you should decide for everybody what their sensitivities are. As soon as you start doing that, you’re on the rocky road to censorship.

I have one last question, and it kind of gets back to some of the process – the songwriting and the thoughts that go into that. I noticed that the Independent’s review of Felt Mountain mentioned that, “There can’t be many singers who can make a song about Eugenics” – and they’re referring to “Utopia” – “feel like an idyllic lullaby.” Now, I know groups like, say, Stereolab, mesh very heavy political commentary with blindingly lush sound arrangements, and masquerades this mix as pop. I’m wondering if you guys ever approach something in such a manner that you’re being, in a sense, subversive – not in a political way, but in the sense that you have a message that is left of what the music is communicating sonically.

That’s very interesting. I mean, first of all, music by itself doesn’t communicate anything – which is what Stravinsky said. Music, in and of itself, does not mean anything. I think that’s probably true, although I think he was being a bit difficult when he said that. So it’s difficult to say that the music is fluffy and the message is hard.

I don’t mean to say that by “lush” or “fluffy” I mean that the music isn’t serious.

Well, I think that it’s interesting having counterpoint. I don’t write the lyrics, so I’m not fully qualified to talk about them. What I will say is that I think we tend to go with the emotion rather than the kind of politics. And I think that the emotion behind the idea that we are potentially in control, scientifically, of creating how we’re going to be in the future – we’re moving into a position where we can play God to a pretty extreme extent – has an emotional significance. And then you imagine some futuristic alien human being that’s been the product of all this genetic whats-it. What’s going through their mind? That can be a very torturous, sad place to be, I suppose. So that creates a certain drama straight away, even though it’s quite comical at the same time.

I think we’re both into sci-fi, particularly the more kind of depressing Blade Runner-y sort of sci-fi (where, in this case, the film isn’t nearly as bleak as the book, or as interesting).

Yes. Yes, exactly. Very true.

Unless it’s an independent film or something, where they have license to do whatever the hell they want. They’re not answering to a studio.

Yes. Well, an independent sci-fi film is something we’d both like to do a score for, because I think there’s a lot of fun you can have putting yourself into the story – you know: “The machinery isn’t quite behaving – it’s gone out of control!” I think that’s what we like when we play music.

I know that the French band Air made their mark with an album of critically acclaimed original music, and then their next step was to do a critically acclaimed film score (for The Virgin Suicides). Can you guys ever see yourselves working back around to where you started – going back and doing a full-on score?

Well, yeah. You say “back” and Alison hasn’t done that. I don’t know. I’m sure we will do it, because hopefully people will pick up on the wavelength that we’re on and come to us and we can be on their wavelength and something good can happen. I’m sure that that could happen. I think we’ve got to be a bit careful as to the timing of it, because we need to get on with another album. We need to make sure that we can still do it.

Are you guys planning to go back in the studio after you get back from this tour?

Yes. Definitely. It’s been a long time.

Are there any ideas formulating for what you’re going to do with it? Have you been writing on the road at all?

No, we don’t seem to be able to do that. But I’m sure there are ideas. Whether they’re any good or not, we’ll find out.

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Stereolab's Tim Gane

Kinda blue: Tim Gane on stage with Stereolab in Solana Beach, Calif., November 13, 2001.

I’m sitting backstage at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif. with Tim Gane, Stereolab’s founding songwriter, guitar player and main ideologue, and we’re lying to one another. Gane is pretending to give me direct, concrete answers to my questions about his band’s work methods, its history, its fondness for certain producers, and I’m pretending to believe him. We’re going along like this, happily, because approximate truths are about as close as one can get to nailing down anything about the group.

For a band whose “sound” is, at least to its fans and serious observers, instantly recognizable regardless of album or song, Stereolab is surprisingly mercurial. Listen closely to any two of their albums back to back, and the differences between them will begin to reveal themselves. The instruments are balanced differently; their owners play with rhythm like Maceo played with James Brown. They paint with a broad palette of tone and mood; they wrestle with a broad range of social issues. Try to pin them down on their much-vaunted ideological concerns, and they’ll make a quick, slithering turn out from under you, claiming, as Tim Gane did during our conversation, that they never felt the way you deduced they felt. You’ve been misled. You’re mistaken. Boom, flash, look at the monkey. Stereolab has slipped away again.

And yet, they remain recognizable, almost iconically so, because, wherever they wander, they’re sure to leave clues to their whereabouts. While perhaps not card-carrying Commies, they do — or at least, vocalist Laetitia Sadier’s lyrics do — consistently espouse a firmly left-of-center stance on everything from the efficacy of war in resolving international disputes (see: “Ping Pong” from Mars Audiac Quintet or “Les Yper Sound” from Emperor Tomato Ketchup) to the merits of socialized medicine (or rather, the lack of merit in most things commercial). Heavy shit, all of it, but rendered light as gossamer by their musical arrangements, which borrow liberally (small “l”) from Latin jazz, exotica, modern composition, avant garde electronic music and, yes, good ol’ rock ‘n’ pop. Heavy lyrics, digestible tunes. That’s the key right there: subversion is Stereoloab’s calling card.

That’s what audiences identify when the group plays live. It has to be, because Stereolab sounds different every time it plays; the last time the group made the trek from its native England (vocalist Sadier is from France) to play the Belly Up (in November of 1999), it leaned heavily on synths, laying down a smooth, slightly jazzy drone that coated the venue in rich warmth. And when it returned to town this past November, to showcase the songs from its most recent album, Sound Dust, it stripped back the Moogs and favored slightly bouncier, grittier arrangements heavier on guitar and more aggressive in their musical attack. Not punk, but not lounge. Maybe the best word would be “poignant,” since their punch and vibe and lyrical bent favor the current schizophrenic mood of the world right now: we’re desperate for hard news, but equally desperate for “comfort food” entertainment. Stereolab may be the only group in the world capable of satisfying both urges at once. Still, it remains resistant to convenient analysis, as Gane made deceptively clear to us during our little chat.

Listen to the full interview:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sean Flinn: The first questions I have deal with the new album, Sound Dust. How long did you guys spend putting it together? Did you approach it differently than previous albums – and if so, how?

Tim Gane: OK, the first part of the first question, the answer is: about four months, four-and-a-half months, something around about that. We were there [in Chicago, at Soma Electronic Music Studio] from October [2000] through to February recording and mixing. We came back [to England, where they reside] for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s about the same as what we normally do, or have done on the last three or four records – maybe two weeks longer or a week longer. But our way of working is really kind of slow, so it seems like a long time. We don’t have the songs written other than very basic stuff written on a cassette recorder, which contains a lot of the stuff that you’ll hear, but it’s never rehearsed and the other guys don’t get to hear it until we go in there. So it’s just a question of a lot of that time you’re spending thinking about what to do and how to approach it.

The second part would be: it’s very difficult to ascertain, for me, whether we approached the record in the same way, because in a technical way, a practical way, they’re always the same. I write the music kind of loosely. I just write the basic chords, melodies, sometimes bass, sometimes little instrumental things — but pretty simple — and I try to keep it open. So, in terms of how I did it, I did it the same: I did it on a cassette recorder, and so on. But in terms of, like, an idea of the sound or a concept of the sound, it’s different. Every record is different. The methodology is, I’m trying to think of new ways to approach ideas that I have and ideas that I want to come back to, I suppose, but I’m always trying to put them in a new way or a slightly different language or a slightly different environment. So, I think that the basic beginning point is always very different. It depends on how you look at it.

I know you recently told Play Louder magazine that you’d designed Sound Dust to be a little bit more approachable, as opposed to something like Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, which you had dubbed – at least in this interview – as being a little too introspective and a little too long.

Yeah, but I mean … that’s true, but in the sense that what I was trying to say was that I don’t judge [Cobra and Phases …] badly for being that. I’m just saying that that’s what it was and that’s what came out at the time, because that’s how we were, and that’s what comes out. I don’t judge records on a scale of commerciality or approachability. On this record, I just felt that a lot of what people said about the last record is that it was a bit sprawling and a bit long. It’s true. But it was OK for that record, I think. Maybe in that respect I would have changed it, but being retrospective about it is kind of pointless – you just do what you feel at the time. But I didn’t want to just do that again, so I did have an idea of – well, it wasn’t just me, it was Laetitia as well, and everyone – that we’d maybe try and keep it to around an hour or so, so people have a chance to be able to get into the music and not find it such an epic Charlton Heston movie.

That was it, really. There was no real attempt to make things more approachable in terms of the music. The music came out how it came out – and I don’t know what’s going to come out. So the idea that we’d make a record to be more commercial or sell more records is never true and certainly wasn’t true of this record, because I just don’t know what going to happen. It’s really just work from a very intuitive level, and I’m not thinking of audience or thinking of opinions or thinking of record labels or record sales. It just absolutely doesn’t enter my head.

What is it about Sean O’ Hagan that keep you guys coming back for more? I know, from what I’ve read recently at least, that you guys really kind of share a fondness for the Beach Boys – but what is it about his working style that draws you back to him as a producer?

I think he’s amazing because he’s very able to tune into ideas quite precisely and, without lots of explanation, really get to the heart or the essence of an idea just by listening to something. He’s very enthusiastic, and he’s very good at tweaking and adding some layers and levels to ideas which were already there in order to make them blossom out – and he always does it very intuitively, or in tune with the ideas that I have. So for instance on this record, he came over and played a lot of keyboards and so on – which were the chords [that Tim had written beforehand] – but he’s great with keyboards. I don’t play the keyboards, I just play the guitar, so I’m trying to say, “Well this is this, but I’m trying to have this feel from it which is not the same as this version of it.” And he understands that! He’s always trying to go with that, and it’s very good to have him say what he thinks. We have good conversations about stuff like that. He knows very much how I work, and he’s very quick in understanding things. He’s amazing. I don’t know anyone who’s as quick as him.

Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier

Vocalist / lyricist Laetitia Sadier croons at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif.

And, for instance, on this record, I had an idea of the brass — it wasn’t what the brass was playing, but I kind of wanted a statuesque column of brass coming in at one point on the first song, against kind of floaty music. And I might say that, but I don’t actually do that. He does that. But when he came back with the [arrangement], it was more than I wanted. He’s just good at progressing with the ideas as well. I think it’s a shame that, in talking with people, they get the idea that Sean and Jim O’Rourke and John MacIntyre have this one thing that they do, and you can go to them for that reason. And that’s not true. They’re able to turn their hands at any kind of stuff, really, and try to find what is the best, or most interesting way forward.

I really think that, when we are actually working with these people, it’s totally different than what people imagine. We don’t use Sean because we want a harmony / Beach Boys thing, we don’t use John because we want a Chicago sound, and we don’t want Jim because we want a late ’60s West Coast arrangement style. We use them because they have very interesting ideas, and they’re very good players and we have a good time and they’re good friends. I couldn’t think of other people more suitable for us to use, you know? And it’s not because we want to keep doing the same thing. I think all the records we’ve made with John are, sonically, very different. I don’t see that Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops and Cobra … and Sound Dust are that closely aligned, sonically. I think they’re all quite different.

Cobra … it was a real hard slog to get anything out of that record technically, because we had to record it in London and the studio we found was actually someone’s house. And when we got there, the gear was totally full of MIDI music. So we had to change absolutely everything, and buy stuff and re-boot it. And, it there were just so many technical problems to overcome. I don’t think the first week we spent with Jim anything was recorded. It was all just trying to make things work. So that album suffered a little bit, in my opinion, sonically just because it was such a struggle to overcome basic things. And when we actually got around to doing the music, it was like, “Whatever. Just get on with it. It sounds fine. It’s not right, but I want to get something done because in two weeks we’ve done a couple of drums and we need to get nervous about it.”

I imagine, too, that working with these guys, after doing a couple projects with them, just gets easier and easier, as you get more in tune with one another.

Yeah – I mean, you don’t try to do it to be easy. You try to keep the level of difficulty up, but what I do mean is that you don’t have to explain. It’s so good not to have to explain at all points what you’re trying to do. Or, “No, I don’t like that. Can you lose that please?” Because so many engineers just do that, and we have very particular tastes. And John and Jim are very in tune. It doesn’t mean that they don’t suggest things that we wouldn’t normally use. They do. But they know what seems to work given certain situation as opposed to just having one set of ideals which they always go by, like, “Vocals must always be recorded through this, music this, and drums must always be gated …” I mean, you do what’s necessary to achieve an idea that you have, and the thing is, with the ideas, they’re pretty obviously there and they understand them without us having to talk them through it. I do have a talk with them vaguely at the beginning a little bit, on and off, just vaguely what I’m thinking of. But from listening to music, and some small explanation, it all comes from that.

It seems like a good time to get into what I’ve seen at least a few reviewers peg as “Stereolab’s instantly identifiable sound.” The four albums that you mentioned before don’t bear a whole huge resemblance to one another …

Sonically, no. There’re so many ways of approaching this, but after reading so many reviews or speaking to many interviewers, I identify three areas where there is a communication problem or a misunderstanding. One is sonically. One is stylistically. And one is content. They’re three simple things. When I talk about music, I usually talk about it in terms of content, because they’re obviously ideas that sprung from me.

Most reviewers tend to talk about them stylistically: What does it sound like? Does it have guitars? Does it have electronics or Moogs? Does it have this type of vocal or that type of vocal or blah blah blah. To me, that’s just arrangements. That’s stuff that you do to bring out an idea. And whether a record has synthesizers or no synthesizers doesn’t alter the fact that I’m thinking of it in terms of content.

So some people like Dots and Loops, or think Dots and Loops is better than, say, this one or better than Cobra…, because they like it stylistically. They like the certain sound that’s on that record. To me, those songs are no better than the ones we’re doing now. And if we did the ones now in a Dots and Loops style, I’m sure they’d go over well. But to me, I’m trying to keep up a level of interest in terms of content, and how we decide to do it is on the spur of the moment. I decided I didn’t really want to use so many electronics and heavy organs and keyboards and guitars – the guitars had kind of gone away a bit anyway for a while – simply for practical reasons. I wanted to have some quite subtle arrangements and I wanted them to be heard. I didn’t want them fighting to be heard. And I wanted the music to be slightly impressionistic or blurred and not precise, exactly, because that’s the kind of ideas I was thinking of. So I thought that, to avoid all of these things that fill up a lot of space, you’d be able to hear things a little bit more. It’s not because the record is more commercial or we’re not using electronics anymore or whatever. It’s not done for those reasons. I’m not some kind of Machiavellian figure who kind of has all these ulterior motives for everything. It’s really, like, simple. It’s simple. And I think sometimes you have to think simple first, without trying to …

…overanalyze it?

Yeah. It’s our fault. We’ve kind of set it up so that people overanalyze what we do – certainly in terms of the music.

I guess the plus of that is, if the message boards on your Website are any clue, you do tend to attract a fairly intelligent fan base, if opinionated.

I don’t know. I’ve never read them. I can’t bear to read them. I did try to read them a couple of times once, years ago – we had a Website back in, like, ’93. It was not run by us, but I tried to read some [of the message board posts] and just said, “Oh, I can’t!” It’s like reading someone’s private letters or something. I find it really squeamish.

Well, you’ve talked a lot about the studio and the craft of the albums, and I’m wondering how much actual studio wizardry might go on on the albums, and whether or not that makes it difficult to bring some of the music to the live performances. I mean, I know there are certain things — like string arrangements – that you can’t bring on stage with you. Does that make it difficult to communicate the vision that you had in making the record to the stage?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think we’re trying to do the same thing. We approach it from the point of view of getting close to what’s going on with the records in terms of what the notes and chords are. But how we do it live is quite different. In a live situation, it’s much more about more direct communication of the ideas. I think we tend to err more towards kind of a groove or more simplistic presentation; not so many parts, not so many thrills and trills.

I find that the songs mostly work – not all of them – but the songs mostly work in a sort of stripped-down way, because I think that [playing] live is a different experience, and we can’t hope to match the certain number of things that are going on on a record. But when we can duplicate, for instance, the string section or the brass or whatever with another instrument, we’ll do so, and I think it works. There’s a danger of reducing everything to sort of some punk-like things, and I suppose we kind of sprung from a punk background, so live, there is more of that element than there is on the record. Some people prefer the live sound. It’s more alike the records that they prefer – there’re more guitars. It’s heavy.

And that’s fine. I don’t to be false about it. It’s what we’ve managed to come up with. To be honest, this tour was quite difficult to do. One of the main reasons is we don’t like rehearsing. And the other reason is, we can’t seem to get our act together very well to perform well. [Laughs]. But I think actually when we start playing it live in front of people, then we really kind of focus on what we need to do, and what’s missing. It gradually evolves over the tour from the first concert we did in Eindhover, Holland to this one now, it’s like 12 weeks’ difference. And I think a lot of the songs have evolved a very large amount in that time, and I think they work pretty well – as well as any of our stuff has worked. But because we mix it always old song and other songs, it’s not like were trying to do this kind of endurance test. It’s never like that. I don’t want to play like that. We’re not avant garde or anything in that sense. I just want to mix everything we’ve done up to now. And we don’t do remixed, updated versions. We pretty much just do what on the album.

Do you guys give yourselves any leeway to improvise on stage at all?

Yeah. I mean, as I said before, a lot of the songs evolved. We kind of fulminate forms of improvisation: “Oh, we’ll let this go a bit, or we’ll cut this bit.” Kind of on that level But most – maybe six gigs out of 10 – we’ll kind of actually improvise a lot, maybe 20 minutes just totally free … usually towards the end or one from the end. We kind of did it all the time for two or three years, and now I think we do it more selectively; it tends to be more often than not. It just depends on the vibe or the moment. And sometimes we play and we think, “It doesn’t need that.” It depends what’s missing. What you feel is missing.

I wanted to talk a little bit about how often you guys release albums. It seems like you put something out every year – at least a full-length album with several singles in there in between. I’m really curious to know how you guys maintain the energy and the inspiration and the stamina to write, record, release and then tour that much material. Or does it even feel like you’re doing anything frequently? Does it just feel natural?

It depends. I don’t feel it that much, personally. I mean, I think that a lot of people might feel it more than me, so you’d have to ask them, but I don’ think … we haven’t recorded anything for a year – since we recorded the LP. I mean nothing. I recorded a tour single downstairs on the computer, just messing about. But I don’t know if we do a lot. A lot of the releases are sometimes compilations of stuff that we’ve done before. Like, maybe a few months old. But it’s true that in the early days, we did knock out quite a large amount regularly. And I think it’s just a question of us really trying to just enjoy working and doing the music. I mean, why we want to do music is because we want to do music. It’s not because of all the other things that some bands fell they’re forced to do. We tour a lot because we don’t present ourselves for videos or for marketing, entertainment magazine type things. We present ourselves or promote the record – if that’s the way you want to look at it-by playing live. So it’s to do with the music. That’s why we’re doing it. It kind of sounds stupid, but –

— it makes sense. You do what you do because you like to do it.

And the rest of the stuff is pushed to the back. I don’t know if other bands do do that. But also, I write very, very quickly. Most of this LP was probably written in a four or five week period with a gap of two weeks, and then I came back and did the rest in maybe 10 days. And there was a lot more material than we actually ended up using. Once I get an idea or something, I tend to be quite quick. And, theoretically, there’s probably enough [left over from the Sound Dust demos] to do another mini album of stuff that we never ended up doing.

Do you tend to do that? Do you tend to take material that you haven’t used on the album and then try to re-use it somewhere else?

Occasionally, yeah. Occasionally we just don’t get around to something – something that I really feel is not really developed and we’re running out of time and have to come back to it. And sometimes I’ll just listen to stuff occasionally that I’ve forgotten and think, “Oh, that’s quite nice.,” or “That’s not really – but this bit here is good, so I’ll take a sample and use it.” But I don’t do it very much. I mean, generally, when we do a record, I tend to just do it at the moment, because sometimes the ideas are kind of … you know, you’re done with it. You listen to it and you go, “Well, yeah, that does sound like that record, and we’ve done that record.” If I can’t feel like I can change it, I just leave it. It has to be pretty good for me to use it again.

There has been a lot of discussion about the group’s political stance on a lot of issues. Do you think critics make too much of that?

I don’t know. There’re elements there, but the way they tend to construe it is almost totally tabloid. There are degrees of subtlety or ideas that don’t have any particular way of generalizing, and they still try to generalize. So all of those labels – the ones you know and everyone knows – I don’t agree with them because they’re not true. I don’t think that way, I’ve never thought that way, and it’s kind of a bit annoying to have people telling you how you are, and then when you say, “Well, no.” And they come back with, “Well, you must be as people say,” or “You’re trying to wiggle out of it.” I’m not wiggling out of it. That’s just the way it is.

On the other hand, there are certain elements of what we do and the way we approach doing what we do and how we conduct ourselves that are different from others, and I think can be an example of how not to do things – you know: how to succeed in the music industry bullcrap, how to decide to pick the things you find relevant. I mean, is that political? I have lots of discussions about it, but I find that we’re just people who think about things. I thought about things way before I was in the group – I’m not particularly an intellectual person, but you do think about things. It’s just normal. So I feel like I have to explain what is just being normal to me. Everyone has points of view, everyone has opinions, but they’re not set in stone. They’re evolving and changing and if someone has a counter point, we’ll say, “Yeah! Yeah.”

It seems like fluid ideas, or the ideas that somebody can have a dynamic world view is very inconvenient for a lot of the press. They want to pigeonhole you.

That’s the problem! We’re kind of self-referenced all the time because we make it difficult for them. But they still do it. But it’s not difficult for them. It’s difficult, I think, to look at things and understand what the language is they’re speaking, and if you want to get to the heart of something, you have to give up some of your preconceptions. But I think that most people who write about music just want to fill some paper. They’re not really interested in getting to the heart of something. Otherwise, they wouldn’t write what they write. I mean, some people are very perceptive and others are, unfortunately, hacks. Not yourself included – I have no idea what you’re going to write about – but in general, especially in reviews, it’s like these people aren’t very intelligent. I don’t mean that intelligence is always what you need, but I if you’re going to be a writer, you have to try and understand, to try to get to some essential quality of who you’re writing about. It’s like a photographer for instance. A magazine only accepts glamorous photos of people, even if the ones that are not glamorous are showing the people much more how they really are. And that’s the way I see it: you show the one which is closest at that point in time to what the person is. The same with writing stuff.

I guess that’s the great crux of art in general – is it supposed to be expressive, is it supposed to be entertaining, or is supposed to be anything? Should you put a “supposed” in front of “art?” It kind of defines whether people are making art or whether they’re making pop.

It makes a point of being pointless.