Posts Tagged ‘Electronic Music’

Best Songs of 2014

Posted: December 22, 2014 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: , , , ,

After a full year of absolutely NO music writing whatsoever (WEEP!), I’m crawling out of semi-retirement as a music journalist/blogger to uphold an annual tradition: posting my list of favorite songs from the past year.

This year’s mix is a slow burner. It starts off with a triple header of neo-shoegaze anthems before diving into the sublime (Spoon, in an uncharacteristic turn, and Angel Olsen’s subtle update of old country torch songs). It sort of reaches its nadir with Sharon Van Etten’s instant breakup classic (which may double as a lament for the addicted) before starting to pick up and get a little more positive with Beck’s ode to morning time and Temples’ impeccable reconstruction of Mark Bolan-era British glam and psychedelia. Ty Segall’s remarkable “Feel” marks the crest of the hill (imagine Aladdin Sane-era Bowie covering early Sabbath), and you’ll feel the wind in your hair the rest of the way down until the whole things glides gracefully to a stop via the back-half trifecta of Hamilton Leithauser (RIP: The Walkmen), Real Estate, and Sweden’s First Aid Kit.

You can listen along with this free Spotify playlist, or watch some of the performances and incredible music videos for most of these songs via the YouTube playlist below.

Some notes:

  • I decided to use the official video for Warpaint’s “Keep It Healthy,” which is actually a double-header with “Disco/Very” (also from the same album); I thought the entire video was so interesting, and such a distinct snapshot of that band, its aesthetic, and LA, that the whole thing was worth viewing. “Disco/Very” is a great song too, so everyone’s the richer, I suppose.
  • Defying all sense and reason (or maybe just reflecting the artist’s desire to get paid an adequate royalty), the Ty Segall song “Feel” is unavailable on Spotify, so I’ve substituted with Swans’ brain-burning “A Little God in My Hands,” maybe the most uncharacteristic song in that band’s 30-year catalog and one of the most subtly incendiary songs of the year. You’re well rewarded for listening in either case.
  • I’ve also had to swap slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark’s “No Pity Party” for “I Know, Didn’t I” from the same album on YouTube for similar reasons, and with similarly excellent results.
  • I could have plugged a YouTube recording of the BADBADGOOD remix of Future Islands’ “Seasons” into that mix, but the band is so incredibly compelling in live performance that I decided it deserved a showcase for those talents. You should absolutely NOT skip that remix, though.

Videos

Songs:

  1. Warpaint: Keep It Healthy
  2. Honeyblood: (I’d Rather Be) Anywhere But Here
  3. Dum Dum Girls: Lost Boys and Girls Club
  4. London Grammar: Hey Now
  5. Spoon: Inside Out
  6. Angel Olsen: Lights Out
  7. Sharon Van Etten: Your Love Is Killing Me
  8. Beck: Waiting Light
  9. Temples: Colours To Life
  10. The War on Drugs: An Ocean In Between The Waves
  11. Ty Segall: Feel / Swans: A Little God In My Hands
  12. The Budos Band: The Sticks
  13. Benjamin Booker: Violent Shiver
  14. Eagulls: Yellow Eyes
  15. The Horrors: So Now You Know
  16. Zero 7: Simple Science
  17. The Juan Maclean: A Simple Design
  18. Aphex Twin: minipops 67 [120.2] (source field edit)
  19. Sylvan Esso: Coffee
  20. Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark: No Pity Party / I Know, Didn’t I
  21. Cibo Matto: MFN
  22. Future Islands: Seasons (Waiting On You) [BADBADNOTGOOD Reinterpretation]
  23. Hamilton Leithauser: 11 O’Clock Friday Night
  24. Real Estate: Had To Hear
  25. First Aid Kit: Silver Lining

Best Songs of 2013

Posted: December 20, 2013 by Sean Flinn in Music, Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Here it is … my picks for the 25 best songs of 2013. I’ve included an embedded YouTube playlist below for those who want some visual stimulation; or, you can listen to this Spotify playlist. Either way, enjoy! Note that this list is not in “best to worst” order, but has been custom mixed for flow. Oddly, the song at the very end, King Krule’s “Easy Easy,” would be my pick for song of the year.

Videos

Songs:

  1. Johnny Marr: Upstarts
  2. Diarrhea Planet: Separations
  3. The Men: Half Angel, Half Light
  4. Bleached: Searching Through The Past
  5. Thee Oh Sees: I Come From The Mountain
  6. Queens of the Stone Age: My God is the Sun
  7. Savages: City’s Full
  8. Yo La Tengo: Ohm
  9. Vampire Weekend: Unbelievers
  10. Glass Candy: Warm in the Winter
  11. Smith Westerns: Varsity
  12. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Jubilee Street
  13. Kurt Vile: Walking on a Pretty Day
  14. Phosphorescent: The Quotidian Beasts
  15. Neko Case: Night Still Comes
  16. Local Natives: Ceilings
  17. The Socialites feat. Tesla Boy: Only This Moment
  18. CHVRCHES: Gun
  19. David Bowie: Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA)
  20. Nine Inch Nails: Copy of a
  21. Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge: White Noise
  22. The Juan Maclean: Feel Like Movin’
  23. Daft Punk: Get Lucky
  24. Franz Ferdinand: Right Action
  25. King Krule: Easy, Easy

Coachella 2012: GET PSYCHED (Part 4)

Posted: March 4, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: , ,

This week’s “GET PSYCHED!” is for that large percentage of my Coachella crew who attend the festival each year primarily to bask in the beats at the Sahara tent. Oh sure, they’ll make the occasional foray to the main stage to catch a major artist — but the real allure of the festival is the (usually) killer lineup of DJs and electronic music acts who keep the Sahara bumpin’ all the way up to curfew.

I’ll confess, however, that I wasn’t SUPER impressed with festival electronic music lineup this year. I mean … David Guetta? Calvin Harris? I suppose they’re both a step up from Tiesto, but damn. Charitably, I’ll call those obvious choices. Anyhow, I’ve learned to trust Goldenvoice’s taste implicitly at this point, and I figured that any fest that booked both Amon Tobin AND Atari Teenage Riot probably had some amazing acts lined up to get people movin’ without playing 100% to the cheap seats.

And, upon further inspection: my hunch paid off. And so, I present to you a short list of artists who will get asses shakin’ AND brains racing in the Sahara (and points beyond) this year.

Justice: ON’N’ON

OK, OK … yes. Justice is a fairly obvious choice here. The more observant among you will note, however, that the French duo, often lazily referred to as a sort of “Daft Punk lite” (because they’re a twosome of French DJs), is making its second Coachella appearance since Daft Punk made its one legendary stand at the Sahara in 2006. Points for staying hungry and not drifting into “flash in the pan” status. And, while Justice’s first album didn’t do a whole lot to dispel the DP comparisons, “ON’N’ON,” the first single from its 2011 album Audio, Video, Disco points to a very different direction — fewer driving grooves, more borrowing from big riff ’70s rock’n’roll and prog rock (as well as some small riff classics, e.g., CSN&Y’s “Ohio.”).

That makes for a VERY promising return to Sahara headline status, in my opinion. We’ll all be getting a high dose of the crazy stage set routine from Amon Tobin’s “ISAM” and DJ Shadow’s “Shadowsphere,” so the pressure is really just on Justice to show up with a crate full of ROCK. After listening to “ON’N’ON” about two dozen times this past week, I’m confident it can deliver.

The Rapture: Sail Away

It took seeing this Brooklyn-based dance punk group live for its music to actually grab me fully by the throat and make me pay attention. Sure, its 2011 album, In The Grace of Your Love (a “come back” of sorts) got a spin or two just on the merits of The Rapture’s rep, and (truthfully) because of its return to the DFA Records fold. Then I caught them live in Austin last fall, and the album quickly clicked for me in a big way, surging onto my list of “Best Albums of 2011.”

The Rapture had a strong following and tons of credibility already, thanks to its instant classic single, House of Jealous Lovers, and its “pioneer” status as part of the wave of Brooklyn bands that started fusing dance music with punk and post-punk back in the early ’00s. But, like most of those bands (and unlike LCD Soundsystem, which surged with each successive album), The Rapture eventually succumbed to “too much too soon” syndrome and followed up its breakthrough album with some mediocre records. When front man Luke Jenner departed the band to do some soul-searching in the wake of some heavy duty personal issues, it forced The Rapture to take a much-needed break.

In The Grace of Your Love was more than a return to form; it was the return of a band that had grown and evolved to realize the potential promised by its earlier work. Playing with variations and tempo and adding gospel and choir music into the dance / punk mix, The Rapture crafted nuanced, emotional record that still packs a hefty dance floor wallop. Having seen the band live now, I can testify to its undiminished power to get people moving. I’ll absolutely be one of those people, again, at Coachella this year.

SBTRKT: Right Thing To Do

I’m not sure who pioneered the practice of DJs and MCs wearing masks to create cartoonish alter-egos for themselves. I can say that, in general, these masked crusaders generally make music worth paying attention to. For reference: MF Doom, Dangermouse, dedmau5 (admittedly, opinions may be split here) and, lately, Aaron Jerome — AKA SBTRKT (pronounced, as you probably guessed, “subtract”) — a British DJ who creates a hypnotic blend of Chicago house, two-step and RnB. My first reaction to his music when I heard it was, “This sounds like Zero 7, if Zero 7 actually made me want to dance instead of fall asleep.” Think deep, soulful vocals layered over spacey electronics, driven forward by funky, FUNKY house grooves. In short: exactly what I want from a late night set at Coachella.

According to at least one interview, SKTRKT actually dons his particular set of masks (all of them, according to Wikipedia, “modern interpretations of native society ceremonial masks” in order to “subtract” his identity from the experience of hearing his music (a valid concern; Jerome has a career as a “nu-jazz” producer and musician, and probably figured that any new music put out under his own name would be judged according to impressions of his previous work). That flips the script on the typical motivation the drives most performers to costume up (dedmau5 has turned his giant mouse head into a global brand, for example), and it certainly gives Jerome freedom to explore different genres and musical textures without fear of violating preconceived notions of what his music should sound like.

Live, Jerome partners up with vocalist Sampha and jumps behind the drumkit to give his music a stronger kick and more room for improvisation; think house music or two-step as be-bop, a live act working through modern dance music forms, but calling back to DJs and crews like the Reprazent drum ‘n’ bass collective (which wasn’t afraid to stand its decks next to a drum kit to see where the beat could go next).

Santigold: Big Mouth

I’m probably more excited to see Santigold than any other act playing Coachella this year. I’m so swept away by her music — particularly her new tracks, like “Big Mouth,” that I consider the rationale for my excitement to be self evident. I mean … just listen to that song! But I suppose I should spend a minute breaking it down.

Santi White is a gifted MC, and her music is undeniably hip-hop … but she pulls in elements from so many different genres, and accentuates her own gifts (a distinct voice, an ability to drop instantly and credibly into Jamaican patois, a love of dance and old-school hip-hop tropes, like b-boying) such that she has emerged as a singular voice in the genre. I love that she pays homage to dub and new wave and old school rap in equal measure, and that she manages to work with so many different producers without sacrificing the consistency of her sound.

“Big Mouth” in particular has me totally jazzed. A slow builder, the song shows off some masterful use of rhythmic loops, each slowly entering the mix until they find a place in the arrangement, which gradually crescendos at the chorus. At that point, everything bursts wide open, and you’re swimming in frenzied tribal beats, reverbed “ooo ooo ooos” and “waa waa waas” and just generally catharting yourself all over the place. Then the whole piece resets and rebuilds to the next climax.

Mostly, though, I think her music’s just flat out great, and that she’s a ton of fun to watch perform. The inclusion of two b-girl dancers flanking her to perform synchronized routines, a la Public Enemy’s S1-W, adds immensely to her live show’s charm, as does the occasional gold lame track suit.

Modeselektor: Evil Twin

Big gigantic confession time: researching this article gave me my first real exposure to Modeselektor. I went hunting through the Coachella lineup in search of something other than dubstep or pop DJs who crank out predictable club bangers, and Modeselektor seemed a likely candidate. Oh sure, I’ve heard of them before, but I’d never taken the time to listen deeply.

Modeselektor have been saddled with the “IDM” genre tag, which is a tricky proposition for a show like Coachella. It generally implies something a bit more cerebral or experimental (read: not, in the strictest sense of the word, “fun”) than what you normally hear on the dance floor. I generally tend to gravitate to it when I need heavy focus to do things like write or to perform tedious, repetitive tasks. Modeselektor tends to skew a bit more toward IDM’s roots in Detroit techno, however, which means their sound is stripped down, pointed, and a bit bass-heavy — but that it’s also built for movement.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and the set will be more about head than heart. In any event, I’m intrigued, and always glad to hear different flavors of electronic dance music on the festival fields. It’s also worth noting Modeselektor’s popularity as a remixer; the duo has provided mixes for Bjork and Radiohead, and recorded a couple of excellent, moody tracks tracks with Thom Yorke. That provides some interesting potential for on-stage team-ups, given Radiohead’s headliner status at the festival.

I’m kicking off this year’s edition of “Coachella: GET PSYCHED” with an audio rebuttal to DJ / producer Diplo — who you may know as the beats / music guy behind early work from artists like MIA and Santigold. According to Pitchfork, upon seeing this year’s lineup, Diplo remarked via Twitter, “maybe im just throwing shade but coachsmella looks pretty lame this year.. u used to be a place to check out new bands/music”, and then, “besides snoop and dre thats boss shit right there” and “its like bootleg ultra w a few bands that are ‘safe'”.

Now, I could give two shits what Diplo thinks about anything, but I do take issue with the notion that the lineup is somehow “safe.” Coachella actually impressed me this year by staying true to its annual commitment to bring in a few really left-field acts. Admittedly, none of these folks are on par with Throbbing Gristle, who played in 2009. Many of them are widely known. But that has more to do with tastes shifting — and really with alternative tastes finding wider outlets as technology democratizes both the distribution of music and the distribution of opinions about music.

So, I thought I’d take this first post of the GET PSYCHED series to shout out a few acts who, while they have drawn almost mainstream attention, still fly the freak flag a bit in their respective genres.

Amon Tobin: Get Your Snack On

It’s a little tough for me to wrap my head around the fact that Amon Tobin has been making music since the mid-90s, even before he began recording albums for the legendary Ninja Tune label. Almost twenty years. Really? Good luck catching up to where he was back then, much less where’s he’s at now.

Always experimental to a certain degree, Tobin started making heavily jazz-influenced downtempo and big beat tracks, veered dangerously close to ambient territory for a while, and now (alarmingly) generates what one might term “Skrillex-bait.” (Seriously, if you look at the comment threads for some of his tracks on YouTube, the less initiated have the gall to suggest he’s making something akin to dubstep.)

The reality is: the guy has taken sampling in electronic music to a whole other galaxy. It’s beyond sampling at this point really; earlier tracks ransacked crates and pillaged rhythm tracks with reckless abandon. Now, Tobin is working almost exclusively with found sounds, recording everything from wild animals to his own crying baby. Here’s the rub: it all still grooves. You can dance to it. Even better, he’s now added a widely acclaimed visual component to his “ISAM” live show — and he’s apparently bringing that to Coachella’s Sahara tent this year.

“Get Your Snack On” is one of my favorite Tobin tracks, dating back to 2000. Also be sure to check out the official ISAM trailer to get a sense of what he’s going to drop on folks in the desert.

Flying Lotus: MmmHmm

You may know Flying Lotus from his work producing “bumpers” for Cartoon Networks “Adult Swim” programming (see an example of sorts here) — but he also creates his own stuff, semi-glitchy downtempo released mainly on Warp Records (home to Aphex Twin, Battles, Squarepusher, and many other mind-bending experimental / electronic acts). His stuff is out there in a deeply funky way – probably due in part to the fact that he’s the great nephew of John Coltrane’s wife, Alice. That’s some lineage, there. He’s also known to rub elbows with the cats from Radiohead, having remixed a track or two, and having brought in Thom Yorke to provide vocals to the song “… And The World Laughs With You” on the FlyLo full length, Cosmogramma.

EMA: California

Pitchfork dubbed Erika M. Anderson’s nerve-shot middle finger to the Sunshine State its third best song of 2011 (right behind Bon Iver and M83, if you can believe that) … despite the fact that it’s built entirely around a litany of lines sung-spoke in an apparent effort to provoke extreme discomfort and / or the prelude to some bone shivering catharsis. And then there’s that fairly agitating instrumental backdrop that’s, literally, nothing but electric violin and doomy-sounding programmed beats. There’s something mesmerizing about it all, though, which may be why the song broke through.

It’s worth reading Pitchfork’s explication of the track to get the full flavor of what all Anderson does here to provoke, surprise, and dismay. And it’s worth listening to the song four or five times to let it sink its hooks into you. I’m still a bit mind-fucked to know that EMA got as much attention as she did with this song last year, given that it’s a pretty intense affair all through.

tUnEyAdRs: Gangsta

Everyone from KCRW to the Village Voice lost their shit over Merrill Garbus, aka tUnEyArDs, this past year, which left a few other people — namely, Chuck Klosterman — really confused. One listen and it’s easy to hear why (although the music isn’t the only thing confusing the poor metalhead from Fargo). As the Guardian’s music blogger, Charlotte Richardson Andrews, noted in a rebuttal to Klosterman’s piss-take, Garbus draws a lot of vocal inspiration from Nina Simone, whose voice, though considered a classic now, provocatively de-femmed Jazz vocals in her time. And she doesn’t stop there. The music itself incorporates loops of her voice in ways that are, by turns, grating and delightful. It also stop-starts frequently, pulling the rug out from under the listener just as as one begins to find safe purchase. This is un-easy listening … but fun, somehow .. and also annoying … but ultimately great. And then there’s the whole queer politics thing sort of running interference when you start digging into the lyrics or watching the performance.

So, while I agree that Klosterman was being a bit of a sexist (homophobic, even?) bastard in his essay, I’m right there with him in being baffled at how music like this could top the annual Village Voice Pazz + Job music poll last year. And yet, I’m sure this is going to be a phenomenal set at Coachella, and that there will be a capacity crowd watching at whatever stage Garbus commands, completely freaking out over it all.

Atari Teenage Riot: Live in Berlin 2011

Germany’s Atari Teenage Riot (and its primary musician / songwriter, Alec Empire) pioneered a harshly confrontational sub-genre of electronic dance music in the mid-90s. Sharing its title with ATR’s record label, “digital hardcore” drew inspiration equally from hardcore punk, gangsta rap, noise, and gabber — a particularly aggressive, gritty strain of hardcore techno especially popular in the Netherlands. This was music designed to provoke confrontation on all fronts: between listener and an external target (for ATR, this meant neo-nazis and fascists), but also between band and audience, and between audience members themselves. Never has a band’s name more accurately described its music.

I don’t do cocaine, so it’s tough for me to truly love ATR the way that the band’s most fanatical fans do. But, in watching this clip of a live performance in Berlin late last year, I’ve realized that I do like them an awful lot — and I absolutely can’t wait to see them live again.

I admit to feeling a certain nostalgia for it all, too. ATR’s first album dropped while I was DJing industrial and experimental music in college at KDVS back in 1996-97, and we all went completely crazy for it. Nothing else sounded like “Deutschland Has Gotta Die” at that time. And the music had a weird impact on people who experienced it live. I remember going to see the band — and several other Digital Hardcore — acts at a show in Riverside, Calif around that time with one of my best friends. We had to physically lift some meth-fried teenage girl off the ground, hoisting her by both arms, in order to stop her from angrily throwing ice cubes at ATR during its set. After we told her to settle down, and then put her back on the ground, she immediately launched into a frenzy of fake-ass karate kicks and chops, aimed at us but connecting only with air, before storming off (presumably to get another cup of ice to throw).

The group’s performance at Coachella 2012 is part of a series of reunion shows, featuring a new lineup. A vocalist named “MC KidtroniK” now stands in for original member MC Carl Crack (who died in 2001); Nic Endo replaces original female vocalist Hanin Elias, who apparently shredded her vocal chords recording all those early ATR tracks (not a shocker … there was a lot of intense screaming going on).

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.

Orbital

With the release of their sixth full-length LP, the brothers Hartnoll have solidified their status as Britain's most successful dance music export.

Despite its multi-national impact, electronic dance music has proffered only a few widely recognizable faces from out of the great bumping masses of DJs, producers and performers – and a pair of those faces belong to the brothers Hartnoll — Paul and Phil. Actually, “faces” is probably a poor word choice there; with the exception of Moby and the model-gorgeous Sandra Collins, you could line up the world’s top deck rockers in a police station, and even the hardest of hardcore ravers would have a tough time picking out the DJ that saved their life last night. The Hartnolls are really no exception — but the name “Orbital” has just about become shorthand for a certain brand of British dance music.

Of course, that’s just about what the Hartnoll’s had in mind when they appropriated the name from the London-encircling M25 highway, along whose paved expanses the first British massives took place. This was back in the heyday of acid house, the late ’80s — early ’90s — when raves first began moving out of the warehouses and into the countryside, their promotion supported by a burgeoning pirate radio network and their future always uncertain. The Hartnolls, weaned on second wave hardcore punk and tweaked-out electronic pop music, gently lobbed their first contributions to the scene (a pair of anonymously produced electro tracks) through Full Frequency range recordings (FFrr), the British dance label that they still call home. In late 1989, they dubbed themselves Orbital and released their first proper single, the now-classic “Chime,” a home-recorded effort that sold out its initial — and all subsequent — pressings.

In the twelve years since “Chime’s” unveiling, the Hartnolls’ career has yielded 5 chart-cracking albums, countless top 20 singles, several headlining slots at the Glastonbury Festival, a main stage appearance at Tribal Gathering and the headlining gig at Woodstock 2 — making Paul and Phil, arguably, Britain’s most successful dance music export. And they’re still going strong. They released their sixth full-length album, The Altogether, in October, 2001, and have embarked on an extensive tour of the US and Europe (forging ahead with international travel despite an ongoing climate of trepidation in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington DC and the growing war in Afghanistan). Additionally, they’ve produced a full-length DVD to accompany the Altogether that features a full 5.1 digital surround sound audio mix of the album and several specially commissioned visual works set to the album’s standout tracks.

Choler caught up with one half of the dynamic duo – Phil Hartnoll — via phone to England shortly before the release of The Altogether to chat about the new album, the impending tour, and the sort of music that keeps the Hartnolls in the air despite the persistent efforts of gravity and other forces to keep the whole world hugging the dirt.

Sean Flinn: A lot of the media surrounding your new album, The Altogether, has been focused on its “lighthearted” and “playful” vibe, relative to your previous albums. What’s your take on all of that? Have people got that right?

Phil Hartnoll: Yeah, I would say so. The only criteria we set out, really, was to try and do shorter tracks – to see if we could say what we wanted to say within about five minutes. But we said that for the last album [1999’s The Middle of Nowhere] and it just didn’t work. But this album, the first set of tracks ended up coming in at that time. The albums we’ve produced do sort of reflect the vibe that we’re feeling at the time, and I would say that things were in quite a carefree sort of mood [for The Altogether’s recording]. But I think, because of the shorter tracks, we stopped going into these longer pieces, which can end up having their moody bits and going up and down. So, as we did a couple of those, it did set up the vibe of the album. And I would agree that it is quite fun. It’s not “deep,” rather than it’s “lighthearted.” I think that, because of the nature of some of the tracks – you know, we ended up putting the cover version of the Dr. Who theme song that we do on there, and things like that – all those things contributed to it being that type of album.

What motivated you guys to start doing shorter tracks?

Just as a little exercise, really. We just said, “Oh God. This time, let’s try and do something different.” And it’s not criteria that we would stick to if we found ourselves going down a path where we’d end up with a twenty-minute track or something like that — or fifteen, or even ten. A track to us just has to feel right. But we ended up doing what we set out to do, and keeping them short.

And how did you guys go about assembling the album? Where and when did this all begin? How far back do the sessions go?

Cor, blimey.

Yes, he actually said that.

[Thinks hard for a few seconds before confessing the truth.] You’ve got me there. Let me think. I can’t remember. It was probably about two year ago when we started it, and we spent a year making it. It’s been a long time coming out really.

And I know you guys did a DVD to be released in conjunction with the album. Did you guys conceive of doing that at the same time you started doing the album, or did that come later on?

It came along sort of in between. I’ve always wanted to do a DVD, just because of the surround sound aspect of it. It was the audio, really, and the DVD format allows that. Nowadays, people are much more tuned into it – it’s much more accessible than it ever was. Certainly it’s becoming more of a video format, and the people selling the machines – since you can’t record your favorite TV show on a DVD – they’re really pushing the surround sound home theater vibe. Which is perfect for us, because we’ve always loved that; we’ve always been trying to get into surround sound.

So it wasn’t really at the beginning [of The Altogether‘s recording] when we decided to do it. It went along more with the idea that we wanted to try this, if we could. When we recorded it, we went into a studio that enabled us to do the surround sound mix, just in case our record company allowed us to do the DVD release. And when we brought down the managers and directors and all that to listen to it, they were blown away by it. So they said, “Oh yeah, OK, let’s do it!” Then it escalated from there. I thought, “Oh God. I’ve got to come up with some visuals now.” Which wasn’t a problem – it was actually really, really good. It turned out about a thousand times better than I ever thought it would, because of the audio and because we’ve got a lot of directors that we know and visual people that really, really wanted to get involved with it. Also, on the visual side, you can be a lot more experimental with it, really. You can have many different angles, different cuts, you know. You can also put some dialogue in, and have audio on / audio off. It doesn’t have to be MTV-friendly. So they just jumped at the chance. And because we were on quite a conservative budget for the video side of things, it worked out really well.

Can you describe what some of the visuals are like, for those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the DVD yet?

Oh it’s a real mixture of stuff, really. A bit like the album, I suppose, in styles. A couple of tracks are videos that we generated for our live shows. And we got the guy, John Thacker, who does all of our live video stuff, to do some re-edits so it worked with the DVD. There’s a full animation, which is really good, for the track “Oi,” which this big, big company actually donated because they wanted to push their animator. I loved the idea that he came up with, and we kept going, “Oh go on, go on. Do it. Do it.” And they did, in the end, because they were so enthusiastic about it, which was really reassuring on a creative level.

So we’ve got this whole animation that was generated for it which would have cost a fortune if they hadn’t given it to us. And there’s this conceptual artist that we know who’d just gone to firework night over here and – do you know what “sparklers” are? Where you just sort of hold them in your hand and sort of turn circles? Anyway, he just went to this big fireworks display, and basically the idea is really, really simple: he just played the tune to loads of people walking past, handed them a sparkler, and got them to dance around. And the way he’s edited it, you can hardly see the people – it’s just that sparkling, tracing sort of thing. So you’ve got something as complex as animation and then something so simple. But because he’s a conceptual artist, it was more of the idea of getting just anybody, spontaneously, doing their own thing.

There’s a hidden track on there, called “Monorail” and it’s just film of all form of monorail in Tokyo. And because you’ve got the two angles [the multiple angel viewing that DVD makes possible], you’ve got that juxtaposed with some sort of American pageant – you know, those guys who wear the fezzes and drive around in little cars –

The Shriners.

Yeah. That’s it. Things like that. That’s pretty funny actually. And then there’s another track that we did [with the song] “Waving, Not Drowning” that has a sort of naïve feel about it. There’s used to be this program, when we were really small kids, called “Playschool,” and it ad a bit like a “Sesame Street” type vibe, a pre-school sort of things. And on “Playschool,” about halfway through the show, they’d go, “Oh, let’s go look at the windows!” And you had a choice of [which windows to go through], and you’d pick a window, go through the arch window, and then you’d go to like a milk bottle factory or something like that and see this little documentary of a milk bottle factory. So, because we’re doing the DVD, we thought, “OK, at that point, we can go through either window and have alternative endings.” So we really sort of messed around with it. One [ending] goes to the CD factory, one goes off on a different tangent. So there’s a lot to play around with.

But essentially it was for the audio side. In my opinion, you can watch a video maybe 10 times and you pretty much know it, whereas with your favorite tune, you can play that about 30 times. So, I do think that the important side was the audio.

So the video was something that you wanted to do, but it was really just to enhance what people were getting with the audio and the 5.1 sound.

Yeah, when DVD-A comes in, I won’t feel pressured. But trying to fill a DVD without visuals is not really in the public domain yet.

I think Bjork may have just done that with her new album, Vespertine. But she’s the first and only person I’ve seen to do that.

Well, the visuals that we’ve done are fantastic, but I didn’t want it to look like “ambient TV,” that you got many moons ago, where it was just like fractals and “Hey – this is the new thing.” This is a bit more interactive. We have had fun with the media on the visual side, but like I say, you can only truly watch something so many times, whereas with the audio side … It will be good when more artists do do that, because then it opens it up to many more bands. It becomes not much more expensive to do the 5.1 surround sound mix, whereas if you’ve got them to accompany it with some sort of visual because that’s what’s expected, it’s an added pressure that would stop some bands from doing it, really.

Yeah. It will probably take more accessible devices being able to read the format before it takes off. While we’re talking about visuals – I know that when Orbital is on tour, your work is accompanied by some pretty extravagant video presentations. That led me to wonder how visual your music is — when you go into the studio, do you ever form sort of a mental visual image of what it is that you want to put together? Is there an inner cinema that you’re crafting a soundtrack for?

>Not really, no. I mean, there are some personal things that sort of conjure up with certain tracks or when you’re making music, it can spark off your visual imagination, if you like. But when it comes to [Orbital’s] live [shows], we work closely with this guy called Giles, and we sit down together and chat about things and moods and stuff, and he goes off and ignores us and does his own thing.

[Laughs.]

No he doesn’t really. But we sit around and chat about the vibe of stuff, and the atmospheres, and things like that, which is fantastic. It’s a lovely creative extension that we really, really enjoy doing for live [performances]. The same with the lighting design. That’s all sort of mood enhancing, really. I just like taking it one step further and putting a lot behind it, even Giles coming up with some wacky screen configurations and making it more theatrical. It’s an enjoyable process, but it’s definitely a collaboration with other people – the same person all the time. He’s worked with us for ages, so he knows where we’re all coming from, and it works well.

And we can pretty much expect that from the tour that you guys are about to embark on here?

Yeah, we’re bringing all of the video projection with us.

Now – speaking of the tour and travel – you guys are basically going to be flying over here from England. Are you nervous at all about getting on a plane right now?
[Note: we conducted this interview about 2 weeks after the World Trade Center / Pentagon tragedy, which was still very fresh in everyone’s mind at the time.]

No. When the World Trade Center towers went down, I was actually in Turkey, which is, essentially, a huge Muslim country. And it [the terrorist attacks] is not a Muslim thing – that’s what everybody’s talking about now, anyway. But I was over there with my family, and even the day before, actually, some 300 hundred yards down the road, a suicide terrorist bomber let himself off in a bank – and that was just 300 yards down the road from my hotel – and killed three policemen and an Australian tourist. Also, growing up in London and having bombs go off all over the place and the threat of bombs, I’ve been brought up that way, really. And you can’t help it. I’ve been on many planes since, because we’ve been to Spain, and we’ve been to Athens. We’ve been all over the place. I’ve probably been on about 10 different plane journeys since that awful thing. What has happened, is that the security is so, so high now. It’s probably the safest time to travel, really – but then again, you can’t help just sitting there thinking. I get nervous anyway, thinking that the thing is going to crash, let alone have anything else happen to it. But it does cross your mind, obviously.

There was a sort of, “Are we going, or are we not? Are we going to America?” moment. I think some people were a bit more nervous – because there are about 12 of us in our crew – some people were a bit more nervous than others. But it never occurred to me not to come or anything like that. It’s just a matter of, “Are people up for it?” And I think in situations like that, you need to be up for it. You can sit there worrying to death. And it is good to be aware and it is good to have a handle on it and be realistic about it, but it’s also good in times like this to go out and just go mad and have a bit of a blow out – forget your troubles. And that’s what we’re providing.

Well, I know a lot of people here really appreciate the fact that most of the acts that were going on tour here haven’t cancelled their shows.

But a lot of them have, haven’t they? A few have. A lot of English bands.

Yeah, I know Nick Cave cancelled his. [Note: He has since re-scheduled the full tour.]

And I hear Coldplay as well. They cancelled. And I think the Manic Street Preachers said that they’re not going. I can understand [doing that] out of respect or something but not … you’d end up not doing anything at all [if you let it get to you too much]. It’s like I said: when I was in Turkey, that happened, and you just don’t know. Wherever you are. It can be in London. It can be anywhere.

Exactly. That kind of leads me to wonder too – a lot of people turn to music, obviously, in times like this for some sort of uplift or catharsis. What kind of music do you listen to when you need to be lifted up or when you need to get something out?

Well, in times of madness, really, it’s quite thrashy, hard music. And there’s these guys over here called Plump DJs who make dance sort of stuff, but it’s hard and chunky. That’s what I would [listen to]. I wouldn’t go off into this nihilist film soundtracky world or anything like that. I tend to have a bit more uplift to get me going and make me a bit more energetic. And I’ve been listening to them not consciously thinking that I need something like that, but it’s quite uplifting to me. They’re on a record label called “The Whole Nine Yards” that’s got a good compilation out at the moment, which is really sort of chunky beats and rhythms. So that’s what I’ve been listening to recently, over the last week.

I wanted to finish this off by asking one last question about the new album. I noticed that a lot of the material on there [the whole second disc, for starters] is stuff that you guys have been playing live for a while or different versions of songs that have appeared on previous albums. “An Fromhair” appeared on The Middle of Nowhere in a different form as Otoño, for example. All of which leads me to wonder how you guys view your body of work as a whole. Do you conceive of each album as a single entity, or are you building something that’s more of a continuum that’s moving from album to album?

I see it more like snapshots of time, really. They’re like photographs, I suppose. If you go further back, to albums like Snivilization, that was almost bordering on a concept – you know: “How crap is this world? Everybody thinks they’re so good, and they’re really crap.” Or the situation we find ourselves in now – “You call this civilized? It’s hardly civilized.” That’s the kind of angle we were going off on there. And you get In Sides, which was much more Jon Barry-esque film soundtracky, because that’s what we were listening to, and we got inspired by that. And some weird things were going on in our lives at that time as well. A couple of mates died and things like that, and so it’s all very melancholy. So that was a bit more of a “body of work,” I suppose, in itself. The Middle of Nowhere was a bit like that as well, really. This one [The Altogether] just seems like sort of snapshots. I don’t know where we’re going next – neither of us knows where we’re going next. And before any of these albums, we didn’t really know until we sat down and started going, “Oh, all right, a new album. Let’s see what we can come up with.”

But we’ve got these laptops now, and we can actually do music wherever we want. The technology has evolved so much that you can have a studio in your pocket, as it were. So it’s very exciting for us, this next period, but we haven’t got any ideas like, “Oh let’s write an album like this,” or, “Let’s write an album like that.” I think Snivilization was the only one where we sat down [and said that]. Whereas with these, I think we’re going to find a lot more similar maybe to The Altogether, but a bit more driving, really. Or a bit more dance-y. I don’t know – that’s the idea I’ve got, but you never know until you actually do it.

So you guys plan to write on the road now that you’ve got more portable technology?

Yeah. Totally. We’re really gearing up for that. Whether it will happen or not, I don’t know, but we’ve got the equipment to – and it really is just a laptop now, which is fantastic.

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