If 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:
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.
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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