The husband and wife DIY duo of Brigitte Rose and Chris Black released their first album ‘Incomplete Until Broken’ in September 2014 several years after Black’s previous project KATSEN came to a sudden end.
With their brand new album ‘Radiation’, BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA’s fun but authentic approach to synthesizers has been a welcome ray of sunshine in a dreadfully gloomy 2016.
While perhaps not as straightforwardly accessible as neighbours and friends VILE ELECTRODES, BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA are a fine example of a wholly independent entity where music is made for the sake of being made.
Brigitte Rose and Chris Black kindly chatted to The Electricity Club about their DIY ethos…
Following the momentum of KATSEN coming to a sudden stall, how long did it take to get into the musical mindset of BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA?
Chris: It was a hard transition to make. It was a rotten time after KATSEN came to an end. Like you say, it all seemed to be accelerating and then it all stopped. We just started recording again in the summer of 2010 as a kind of therapy. ‘He Hit Me’ was the first thing we did, and it’s free on Bandcamp, if you want to hear what we sounded like, before we knew who we were! In all, it took two years for us to self-release anything we felt had the BOO identity!
Was it a natural evolution? Some might say KATSEN and BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA are the same, but how would you explain their conceptual differences?
Chris: In a way, I feel like I might have intentionally stage-managed some of the differences between KATSEN and BOO. First of all, the name had to change, and with that, we lost all the contacts and progress we’d made up to that point. Some people have only just realised this year that BOO and KATSEN have the same DNA! The excellent RODNEY CROMWELL got in touch a couple of months ago, 8 years after his label Happy Robots released the KATSEN track ‘Constellation’ on the ‘Botpop’ compilation. He heard one of our tracks on the radio, and thought “that sounds like KATSEN!”. He googled us, and realised it sort of was!
Chris: It all seems silly and counter-productive now, but in the early days we really wanted a clean break from the past, and wanted BOO to stand on its own, rather than use the KATSEN momentum. We also intentionally went darker than KATSEN. I mean, there are still some bubblegum moments, even in ‘AC/EP’, but KATSEN would never have done a track like ‘Calling’, which is much more gothic, and thunderous than the old stuff. I think we’re much more relaxed about the similarities between the two now, I mean, it’s a bit schizophrenic to intentionally try to be different from the music you wrote and made yourself, isn’t it!
Brigitte: For my part, everything we created was new and took its own time to form. We purposely struck out to forge our own path but like Chris says, we’re much more comfortable with any similarities now between us and KATSEN. It was important to try to make something different at the beginning as we needed to define what BOO was and find its edges. Now it’s established enough to define itself.
Who and what have been your biggest influences?
Brigitte: Influences are hard to detect yourself. They get absorbed into your life and come out in unexpected ways. I’ve recently been described as sounding like Debbie Harry and I really admire her so I’ll take that! I aspire to make songs as heartbreakingly awesome as ABBA’s ,but I’m also influenced by punk and DIY in a big way. I think everything that really moves me comes out in what I do, and that’s a lot of influences, but in particular it’s artists who look at their work as a whole, ie they’re not just a player, they’re a writer, painter, director, singer, noisemaker, experimenter etc. Artists like DEVO, DAVID BOWIE and PRINCE.
Chris: I agree with Brie, although our music has been described as 80s-influenced etc, and I have all the usual suspects as influences (you can probably guess), I think the more particular influences on my music are in my upbringing, being brought up by my Mum, and listening to her music. That’s how I first heard JOY DIVISION, Bowie’s ‘Low’, and LINTON KWESI JOHNSON’s very particular London dub sound. ‘Unknown Pleasures’, ‘Low’ and ‘Forces Of Victory’ were pretty much the soundtrack of my childhood. Then I heard ‘Pocket Calculator’ on the John Peel show in ‘81, got on a tube to the HMV on Oxford street and bought every piece of KRAFTWERK vinyl I could lay my grubby eleven year old hands on. I got a red shirt and black tie that day too!
I was also obsessed with UFOs and ghosts just like most kids in the late 70s were, and we all know that these things demand a swirling synthesizer soundtrack! I began making music when I was 11 or 12, and saved up for my first synth (after I got my VL-1) the Yamaha CS-01 in 1985. Then my Dad (Mum and Dad split when I was 9, but I bumped into him in a music shop when I was 16 and re-connected with him) gave me his SH-1 in 1986 and a WEM Copicat, and that was the sound of my music from then on. I just loved sitting in the dark with a dark soundscape I’d just made swirling around! No, I didn’t have girlfriends!
The trusty Yamaha CS-01 is still a stalwart of your live set-up. Can you explain your emotional attachment to this distinctive portable synth?
Chris: It’s love. Pure and simple. I bought it from Freedmans on Leytonstone High Road when I was 15. I mangled it in my early 20s, trying to get it to scream, and I succeeded. It sounds incredible! I’ve had a couple of pretty noisy bands ask if I would sell it to them, they loved the sound it now makes so much, but it always has to be a no. Like I said, it’s love.
Brigitte: It’s the ultimate synth really, so simple in its design – giving the gift of restriction on your creativity – and yet you can really push its boundaries. More than that though, this synth truly has a voice of its own. I remember when I first played it, pressing my ear to its speaker while playing it upways like a clarinet and exclaiming “It’s breathing!”. It’s also so lightweight that you can play it while wearing it which is the dream really, isn’t it? Who said keyboardists can’t shred?
Your debut album ‘Incomplete Until Broken’ was released in 2014, how do you look back on your earlier releases?
Chris: As Spike Milligan said: “I don’t look back. It hurts my neck”. I think we’re still happy with our old stuff. We’re just getting better at being who we are, and the old stuff, because it was honestly just trying to find our path, though it may be less developed, is still nice to listen to. There are still some great tracks on ‘Incomplete Until Broken’ that surprise me when they come on in a shuffle playlist because they sound pretty good, I think.
Brigitte: They still feel fresh to me! That’s part of why playing live is great, we can bring out older tracks that people might not be so familiar with, ‘Calling’ and ‘National Grid’ are amazing fun to play live. At the same time, there is definitely an evolution of sorts happening in our music, it’s becoming more focussed and distilled. I think creating art is a journey, so I look at each earlier part as an irreplaceable step in that journey and don’t really measure it against any particular success criteria. They are good because they are part of the whole. And they’re good on their own anyway because they’re great songs!
How do you feel the general reception for ‘Radiation’ has been?
Chris: It’s been great, hasn’t it?
Brigitte: Incredibly positive and far more widespread than ever before. It seems like a lot of people are sitting up and taking notice of this one and it’s very rewarding to see people getting so much out of it.
I particularly love it when people share photos and messages about the joy of unfolding the package itself. We put so many hours into making it, both sonically and physically, it really means a lot when people can see that care and they appreciate it.
The title track is an interesting hybrid of dark and light?
Chris: Thank you! I don’t want to stamp a meaning on it too firmly, because we think people’s personal interpretation is more important than ours, and it’s horrible when an artist comes along and says “this song is about x” when you always thought it was about “y”. I’ve had some songs I’ve loved ruined that way!
But I will say this: We had a poltergeist experience in the flat where we were staying in Hamburg, and to calm down, wrote the first rendering of ‘Radiation’. We were shutting ourselves off from mainstream media. We absorbed our ghost experience and the image of the transmission tower and decided we wanted to imagine ourselves radiating out through the universe, jamming the signals of all the evil sods who ru(i)n the planet. We had also recently re-watched John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’, so maybe that’s a far simpler explanation of the title track and album concept. But the image of the tower standing in the dark radiating its signal was with us from the beginning.
While BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA are known for being quirky and irony free, ‘Fairy Tale’ is wonderful accessible avant synthpop. Please describe its genesis…
Chris: Thank you! It was a riff that stuck in my head. I went to bed and couldn’t sleep, it kept writing itself… Finally I got 10 minutes sleep and dreamed the chorus. So I had to get up, in my pyjamas, and go to our studio and quickly sketch the song… Unfortunately I didn’t get any sleep that night at all as I kept hearing new bits adding themselves to the track, and I had to sketch them down before I forgot them! It’s only the second time that has happened to me: a song has materialised fully formed-words and all, the other time being ‘Where Nobody Can Find Us’ by KATSEN. I wasn’t sure how I felt about ‘Fairy Tale’, but now we’ve played it live a couple of times, it’s one of my favourites! I think it might be a single one day, but we don’t know when…
Brigitte: I had to go away overnight to Sheffield a little while ago. I had never been to Sheffield before and all I knew about it was ‘Threads’.
I missed Chris like crazy, he was at home experimenting with new tracks. In this lonely state I wandered about the middle of the town centre which is all open and empty, full of chain stores and an eerie lack of people.
There is the odd old building from the steel industry boom times, but it seems like they’re just relics that the new part is trying to iron over. The Sheffieldians I met there said “No one hangs out in town, there’s a sort of perimeter around the town centre after which you find all the people and pubs”.
“Just like a bomb had been dropped!” I thought. It left a really strong impression and when I got home, Chris played me a track he’d come up with that day and I sang on it. That became ‘New Town’. It was only after the track was formed I learned of the incredible synth heritage of that place, so many artists I love come from there and I didn’t even know!
Chris: It was fun explaining what a “new town” was to Brie, she being a country girl from another continent… We watched lots of public information films of town planning in the 1950s. They were going to make Britain a better place, you know! *hollow laughter*
Brigitte: An artist can use whatever tools work to express their art… but I do believe you’d be restricting your palette to use purely digital sounds. For me, there’s a life in analogue sounds and instruments that is missing from many digital instruments. So analogue is important to BOO.
The sounds have to be alive, pulsating, with a beating heart. This is also pretty important when you’re making electronic music I think, because you don’t necessarily have a sweaty, flailing drummer to rely on.
Chris: I agree. To misquote the NRA: Synths don’t make music – people make music, and good music can be made with the worst instruments provided the person is coming from the right place. I’ve been in love with analogue synths since I first heard ‘Switched On Bach’ when I was 5. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I was mesmerised by the distinct personalities of the individual sounds. It was a visual experience, you know. Years later I was similarly immersed in ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Art Decade’ from ‘Low’, and began to understand that these sounds were coming from magical tools called synthesizers, and they seemed to create a direct pathway between your imagination – into sound – into the imagination of the listener. So obviously I wanted one!
I think one of the key factors in this equation is the imagination-sound part, and analogue synthesizers have always been quick and relatively easy to craft and sculpt sound with, before your imagination runs away somewhere else… This is important. If you ever tried to program a DX-7 (which I used to attempt in my optimistic youth), you can find yourself getting lost pretty quickly, which is also fun, but not if you’re trying to make something specific. I think it’s fine to use whatever you want, so long as your imagination is engaged. We love to hear music where people have stretched what seems sonically plausible, or sane!
At what point does practicality over ideology eventually win over?
Brigitte: I think when you’re playing live. People do approach it differently and I’m always interested to see how electronic musicians articulate their sound on stage. We like to play as much as it’s physically possible to without relying on backing too much. However our ‘old ladies’, the analogue synths we have at home are too heavy and temperamental to bring out live, so we use a smaller set up that’s still capable of delivering those big sounds.
Chris: Yeah! It goes hand-in-hand, I suppose… We just thought of a video for ‘Fairy Tale’, and storyboarded it roughly etc, but we figured out that it would be wayyy too expensive to make, and would probably take us a couple of years to complete. So practicality won that time! Maybe practicality has to win every time?
Brigitte: The pros are you have total creative control, which is paramount. The cons are you have no one pushing it out there for you, no-one advertising, no-one arranging gigs for you, submitting to festivals, raising your profile etc. All this stuff really is a full-time job for more than two people and it’s difficult to do any of that when all you really want to focus on is the creative part. We’re slowly building up a solid fanbase which we’re really engaged with and I’m proud of, but sometimes I think it sure would be nice to be able to have a tour manager, PR person and band manager on Team BOO!
Chris: Agreed. And maybe this will be the next step… We already have a third album waiting in the wings to be tweaked into life, and it’s quite daunting to think that we’re doing it all ourselves. You have to divide yourself into four people:
1) the recording musician writing and recording songs
2) the gigging musician figuring out how to do it all live, practising, working out transport etc
3) the PR person emailing a million music blogs, only to get responses from a handful
4) the designer doing the artwork, making the packaging, filming and editing videos
And that’s before you take into account persona #5 – the person with a full-time job to hold down. I tell you, we have the utmost respect for anyone doing this, whatever their degree of success. It ain’t easy!
How do you feel about media coverage for electronic pop, within both independent and mainstream spheres, especially when some journalists can’t tell their tape recorders from their drum machines?
Brigitte: I have to say it’s pretty dire. I like to keep up with new music and it’s incredibly tough to find DJs or writers I can rely on to give me informed opinion on new music, especially electronic music or pop.
So often these days when I’m looking for new music I find something labelled electronic which is just a pitched down slow voice over a 90s dance track – and it’s got rave reviews! It’s really alienating and leaves me feeling like culture is stagnating.
Although it is a matter of where you look, some DJs and writers are doing an amazing job (TEC for instance). When I get fed up with my search, I usually put on Liz Berg on WFMU or Lisa Uber on WRSU (both in New Jersey). Liz plays a pretty eclectic mix but there’s always a great pop tune in there somewhere. Lisa’s ‘Machine Age Voodoo’ show plays an awesome mix of contemporary and past electronica from minimal wave to cheesy synth-pop and bleeding edge limited cassette releases.
Has there been too much bias towards dance music as the only credible form of electronica?
Brigitte: Yes! Which to me is a terrible indication of how deep pockets and big labels dominate the music media… Because obviously there is a wealth of incredible and diverse electronica out there, we just aren’t getting to hear it.
Brigitte: It’s hard to say, I tend to listen to music from all over the world, not just the UK.
This is probably because in Australia music is so dominated by rock, I’ve always had to search farther afield for new sounds. Lately I’ve been listening to ESSAIE PAS (Montreal), DERADOORIAN (LA) and THE UNITS (New York).
Based on my experience gigging, it seems like there’s no shortage of fantastic bands out there, and it’s definitely starting to feel like a few dedicated groups of people are establishing more opportunities for these bands to play live, like Synth Club.
We’re a bit excited about a new venue in Brighton that’s been opened by the BEATABET collective who seem much more open to playing electronic pop. I think with a musical genre, it’s always there, people are always doing it, but the popularity of each genre comes and goes in waves. I do feel a synth wave coming on.
Chris: Yes, the UK is full of great acts at the moment. It’s a special time. All the acts I would recommend would take up too much time, and I think it’s very much a question of one’s own taste. I would say that we can normally be found reading TEC for tipoffs! And WFMU is a great station, if you want to hear something that you’d never hear anywhere else…
What’s next for BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA?
Chris: We’re moving house, leaving Brighton for Newhaven, then gigs, a single, and start work on LP3…
Brigitte: Global domination, essentially!
Chris: In a nice way…
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA
‘Radiation’ is available as a CD or download from https://batteryoperatedorchestra.bandcamp.com/album/radiation
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
29th August 2016, updated 4th September 2017