Few, if any musicians on the electronic music scene could claim to be as prolific as the duo of Rhys Fulber and Bill Leeb.
The Canadian-based pair have collaborated as FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY, DELERIUM, INTERMIX and NOISE UNIT and have also brought their musical talents to several other diverse projects over the last 35 years.
Rhys Fulber kindly took time out of his busy PR schedule to talk about the new FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY release ‘Mechanical Soul’ and a selection of some of his high profile side-projects.
How important was the influence of your father on you getting into music?
Hugely important. His record collection alone was a solid foundation for anyone, but then the fact our dining room was a jam space from when I was 5 or so meant there were always instruments set up to mess around with. The keyboard player in the bar band he played with had a Minimoog, so I remember playing with that when I was 7 or so. I also started playing drums maybe even earlier than that.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
KRAFTWERK is number one. My parents took me to a show when I was 5 and I still remember it. After that it’s Pete Shelley’s ‘Homosapien’ album and all the BUZZCOCKS original LPs. Their music really connected with me when I was young and still does today.
What kind of effect did growing up in Canada have on your music?
Vancouver was still very colonial when I grew up so we got more of the British music scene than the US, as well as Canada promoting a lot of their in house bands so we had our own take on things in some ways. Also Vancouver was a world class studio city already in the 80s so there was a culture of that in Vancouver. All the studios we worked in were first rate, and connected to a famous Canadian musician, like Bryan Adams or Paul Dean.
How much have the themes of ‘Mechanical Soul’ been influenced by the situation of the pandemic?
I think maybe lyrically a bit. I was still living in LA when we started the album so we were already used to working remotely, so it wasn’t a big change for us in that way.
What have been your other sources of song material for the album?
I had clips of music from various things and times that we pulled together as the basis. One was meant to be for my solo techno material as well, so it was a bigger variety of starting points that usual. We used to get in a room together and write all the music so this one is different in that way. I had some track ideas and Bill made suggestions to them and then added vocals and lyrics, so in some ways we both focused on our roles more than in the past in a way.
Were there any particular synths or pieces of technology that had an impact on the making of ‘Mechanical Soul’?
Each one had a different key piece. I added that to the liner notes; which was the featured instrument on each. For instance, the main riff of ‘Alone’ was from a borrowed Moog Model 15 reissue that I just recorded jams on for a day and pieced those core elements together from that. The single ‘Unknown’ has a lot of a Roland Alpha Juno 2 synth I think I have only used on maybe two other songs over 20 years or so…
You have two featured songs out of the 157(!) on the recent ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ computer game. What is the story behind ‘Drained’ and ‘Subvert’, were they written specifically for the product?
Yes, they were. I was put in touch with one of the music supervisors as just a general contact, because he had worked for a label FLA had released for in the past and he just asked if I would be interested in submitting some ideas to this new game project. I had submitted a total of 6 or 7 tracks and they chose those two. The song ‘Stifle’ on ‘Mechanical Soul’ was one of the tracks that didn’t make the cut. Bill liked it so we developed it into a Front Line song. Two tracks on my last solo album ‘Ostalgia’ were also from those sessions, and the ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ material spawned the rest of that album as well, as it was done at the same time.
In pre-pandemic times, FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY co-headlined with DIE KRUPPS on the ‘Machinists United Tour’, what are your recollections of those shows?
It was a pretty good tour. Just adding another name band does a lot for the draw it seems, so we had some shows that we hadn’t had in a while in places like Munich for instance.
What means most to you? Recording new material or playing live?
Well, you can’t have live without the studio for this music, so I think the studio means more to me although I really like both.
Sampling has always been at the core of your musical projects, what have been the highs and lows of creating songs using this creation method?
Sampling is just like another form of synthesis to me so it’s hard to extract it as a separate thing now. We didn’t think too much about what we sampled other than if it sounded good. I still think that holds true now, though I have just gotten much more covert with how I do it now. Random and obscure sources, for instance.
‘Voices’, which featured on the INTERMIX album, has always been a favourite. What are your memories of working on this album?
I don’t remember that album too well. I remember the mix room and the gear we used, but it’s not exactly clear. It was a busy time and we made that album fairly quickly as a way to experiment with new ideas without committing them to FLA. So it was like a testing site album.
From the same album, ‘S+M=y’ features a sample from Clive Barker’s seminal horror film ‘Hellraiser’. Was there a specific process with getting the “we’ll tear your soul apart” dialogue cleared, or was this an early case of let’s sample it and hope no-one will notice?
We didn’t think that way then at all. We just sampled whatever. It wasn’t until ‘Millennium’ (1994) that we had to atone for our sins!
In terms of commercial success, the DELERIUM track ‘Silence’ sticks out. The original version still stands up, but how did you feel when the trance versions brought the track to a more mainstream audience?
It was pretty surreal, like you are somehow disconnected to it. But who can complain about a magic moment like that? I think hits have to be accidents, because nothing about that was planned.
You have produced for other artists, notably working on KANGA’s superb eponymously titled album and ‘Automaton’, the upcoming single by AESTHETIC PERFECTION. What do you think makes a good producer?
Someone who can make an artist comfortable and not afraid to try new things and push themselves. It’s usually done with lots of support and being careful with words and constructive criticism.
You have worked with co-collaborator Bill Leeb for over 30+ years now. What do you feel helps to keep that relationship fresh creatively?
It is mainly around a similar taste and we still listen to new things. I think our working relationship is better than ever because there has been so much trust built up.
How influenced are you by current forms of music?
Moderately. I think you can’t have stale beats in electronic music, so it’s good to hear what the current sounds are to keep your sound fresh without jumping too much on one thing. As you get older you realise being yourself is the most important, but buying new shoes and a jacket really helps.
Do you feel that the Industrial format is a bit of a straitjacket? Is this a reason why you have pursued several side projects?
It doesn’t have to be, but I think the audience wants the bands they like to deliver the sound they were drawn to. When you go too far off that they feel betrayed somehow. It’s easier just to have another banner to keep everyone happy.
Your CV of outside artists you have worked from a production / remix perspective with is pretty incredible including MÖTLEY CRÜE and MEGADETH as well as Alice Cooper, Sarah Brightman, Sinéad O’Connor; do you find working with other artists more or less stressful than working on your own material?
It really depends. Both can be very stressful. Working on your own, you can lose perspective which can really slow things down, whereas with a band or something there are more ears in the room.
You have been pretty vocal about the way that streaming sites such as Spotify give musicians a raw deal when it comes to royalties. What musical formats do you tend to generate most of your income from?
It’s hard to answer that because I get income from so many places now after so many years in the business, and sometimes it’s really random; suddenly one song will get used somewhere and you get a blip, so I can’t complain too much.
I just think YouTube and Spotify is devaluing art in many ways and it’s hard to steer away from ‘free’ for a lot of people once the toothpaste is squeezed from the tube. I much prefer the model Bandcamp have come up with, where you get some streaming and the appreciation of tangible product as well.
You are stuck on a desert island, what is the one piece of electronic gear you would have with you and why?
My Waldorf Q+. It literally can do it all, and very well!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Rhys Fulber
Fred Ventura is the Italo Disco legend who had a number of European club hits such as ‘Wind Of Change’, ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘The Years (Go By)’ between 1984-1989.
Born Federico Di Bonaventura in Milan, he generally wrote and sang his own material, something that perhaps wasn’t so prevalent in the world of Italo Disco.
The first Fred Ventura solo single ‘Zeit’ took its lead from his passion for German language pop and ‘Der Kommissar’ by Falco in particular, although it baffled Italian audiences!
And while his music was later influenced by NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS, it would be fair to say that some musical transfer also occurred in the opposite direction.
On ‘Late Night Train’, there may have been some data exchange with Messrs Tennant and Lowe for the sparkly synth riff from ‘Domino Dancing’, while 1987’s ‘Imagine (You’ll Never Change Your Mind)’ and ‘Heart’ have much in common. Meanwhile recorded in 1985, ‘You Want Me’ has some striking musical similarities with NEW ORDER’s ‘Shame Of The Nation’. But by the release of his first album ‘East & West’, Fred Ventura was already disillusioned with where European electronic dance music was heading and looked towards Chicago House for solace.
Continuing to record in a variety of guises and later running his own Disco Modernism label, he formed ITALOCONNECTION with engineer and producer Paolo Gozzetti with the aim of using classic vintage sounds while looking towards the future. Although they did not release a single in their own right until 2012 with the rousing ‘My Rhythm’, Fred Ventura’s reputation was such that ITALOCONNECTION were immediately in demand as remixers.
In 2010, the pair reworked HURTS ‘Better Than Love’ while in 2011, their radio mix of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ was actually BBC Radio 2’s preferred version for airplay.
ITALOCONNECTION released their self-titled debut album in 2013 which comprised of their own tracks as well as productions and remixes for other artists, so 2017’s ‘Metropoli’ featuring ‘Humanize’ could be considered their first album proper.
Some of their more recent productions can be heard on three songs for ‘Dollars & Cents’, the 2019 debut long player by Britalo exponent KNIGHT$.
With the release of a new ITALCONNECTION album coming soon, Fred Ventura kindly took time out to chat with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his career to date.
What got you interested in the sound of electronic music?
My first contact with electronic music was around the mid-70s, KRAFTWERK ‘Radio-Activity’ and Giorgio Moroder productions were innovative and pretty unique to the ears of a 13-14 year old boy living in in the suburbs of Milan, even if it was punk rock that grabbed my attention in 1977.
You have been quoted as saying ‘Blue Monday’ by NEW ORDER was the record that changed your life, can you remember the first time you heard it?
‘Blue Monday’ was such a positive shock for even someone like me who was already a fan of JOY DIVISION and NEW ORDER. At the time I was starting producing myself some electronic demos and one morning I woke up and switched on my radio and heard ‘Blue Monday’ for the first time, it was played every hour for 24 hours, it was the record of the day for the station, I remember checking it every hour for almost all day…
You started with a Roland Juno 60 and Oberheim DX, what led you to choose those as your first instruments? How did you find them to use?
It was not easy to buy the more expensive synthesizers like the Jupiter 8 or the LinnDrum so we had to start with cheaper instruments, more affordable but good enough to sound credible.
After using a few other instruments that were rented, I decided to buy the Oberheim DX and a Juno, they sounded fantastic to me and easy to use, I still own both of them.
What can you remember about making your first single ‘Zeit’ in 1984?
‘Zeit’ was the first thing I wrote with a new awareness, after ‘Blue Monday’ I felt legitimated to flirt with dance music and ‘Zeit’ was my personal idea of disco, I was very naïve but I knew what I wanted. The main goal was to make a record, I went to the Disco Magic label office, there I met Roberto Turatti who proposed for me to go in the studio with his partner Miki Chieregato to produce the song for a 12”, a dream come true, I was 21 and full of hopes…
When did you realise there was some sort of an Italo Disco sound emerging, although of course it wasn’t called “Italo” then?
I started to feel part of a sort of movement a bit later, at the beginning it was all about individuals trying to propose their own brand of dance music. Common influences were THE HUMAN LEAGUE, and HEAVEN 17, Bobby Orlando and Patrick Cowley… near the end of 1984, all those Italo records were charting in Italy and starting to spread all over Europe
Did you consider SAVAGE and RAF as rivals or brothers in arms?
I never felt rivalry with any of my contemporaries, I’m still a good friend with SAVAGE and I love ‘Self Control’ by RAF.
You signed to Time Records and had this European pop career, how do you look back on that period as a “star”?
I was not conscious of my sort of popularity, “success” came too late and short, I was already bored of the evolution of the Italo sound, all the producers were becoming more and more commercial.
I felt totally out of place when the BPMs were jumping to 140. Chicago House was getting big in the clubs, I thought it was time for a personal revolution and I quit the scene…
What were your own favourite songs that you recorded in this phase of your career? How do you think they stand up in the pantheon of European pop music?
I’m not that proud of the records I made from 1986 to 1989, I still like the songs but I’m not so in love with the production, the introduction of digital sounds and sampling were changing the feeling of my own demos. By the way, ‘Wind Of Change’ still sounds good to me and is still getting great feedback during my performances.
The UK never really embraced Italo Disco BUT would accept it through the back door via PET SHOP BOYS and NEW ORDER, were you ever frustrated by the hypocrisy especially from the British press? One journalist admitted “Despite the fact that I love the PET SHOP BOYS as much as I loathe MODERN TALKING, I have to admit that musically, they’re not that different!”
Honestly, our main goal was to reach the European market, we felt the UK market was too complicated to reach, considering how many extremely good productions were coming from there. I love the PET SHOP BOYS and NEW ORDER and I have to admit they were my biggest influence. Probably our biggest limits were the lyrics and the Italo-British accent, something that in the rest of Europe was never noticed
In some ways, you were unusual as an Italo artist who wrote and sang their own material, which was not always the case with a number of acts from the genre?
Yes, this was the main difference between me and other Italo artists, songs were written mostly by their producers, I still regret about accepting to record ‘Night & Day’ that was written by my producers of the time, Farina and Crivellente.
Did you feel the ‘character’ artists like Den Harrow and Baltimora tarnished the credibility of Italo Disco?
The fact that many of the “so-called” Italo artists were miming didn’t help to make it a credible genre of music, that’s for sure, but today at last, people are into the music, not the gossip or the fashion.
How did you think electronic dance music has been developing over the years since then?
The evolution of electronic music, it’s been always been associated with technology, after analog synthesizers, we had FM synths, then samplers, then plugins and laptop. There’s not that much left to discover nowadays, so everybody has the possibility to give a look back to old technology and refresh it with a contemporary attitude. It’s a great feeling to be able to use such a variety of old sounds and new technology together, the most important thing to me is to try to use all the knowledge to create something that sounds modern.
Did you ever get frustrated enough to want to make a guitar-based album like Karl Bartos did?
During my career, I have been able to fulfil almost all my music desires, I have made various albums and projects under different names, from my post-punk band STATE OF ART to VIBRAZIONI PRODUCTIONS to BEDROOM ROCKERS, via Milano 2000 Records and Evolution Records, they were all very important steps in my career.
From 1990 until 1994, I was running Evolution Records, a label dedicated to house and techno. After that period, I made a few albums under the name VIBRAZIONI PRODUCTIONS, downbeat stuff, soulful and jazzy.
Then in 2001 together with Enrico Colombo, I did an album as BEDROOM ROCKERS for Universal Italy.
So how did ITALOCONNECTION come into being? Is the concept as the name suggests?
ITALOCONNECTION is the result of over twenty years of friendship and occasional creative meeting between me and Paolo Gozzetti. In 2010, we decided to join forces and give more continuity to our electronic raids using the ITALOCONNECTION pseudonym. The aim is to revive the glories of the early 80s Italo Disco and Synthpop in a modern form.
When was the point when you realised there was still a big love for Italo disco? Did you feel vindicated at all?
Now is more than 20 years since this sort of Italo revival started, travelling around Europe made me realise how big the interest was for this genre. Nostalgia for the past makes people dig and rediscover old music, today there are so many revivals happening at the same time. Actually I never had a vendetta plan in my life, I’m enjoying these moments because I’m having the possibility to produce new music for an old audience but also for a new one that is discovering Italo thanks to the web.
A sign of this was when Italians Do It Better released the 1984 demo version of ‘The Years (Go By)’ with its corresponding instrumental in 2011, how did this come about?
Back in the day, thanks to Myspace, I was able to get in touch with Italians Do It Better and after listening to several of my unreleased songs, they decided to release the demos of ‘The Years’, my most popular song which I wrote together with Turatti and Chieregato back in 1984. I was very happy to make these demos available on vinyl, considering also that I was a fan of the Italians Do It Better sound.
You co-produced three tracks with Britalo artist KNIGHT$, what do you think about these acts who have been influenced by you?
I have to admit that is a great feeling to see new acts showing respect for so many Italo artists and producers, I would never even imagined that one day, I would have become an influence for somebody.
ITALOCONNECTION is now your main project, what does it give you that perhaps wasn’t possible in your solo work?
The opportunity to collaborate with somebody who shares the same feeling and attitude is a real gift, ITALOCONNECTION is a real team and we enjoy every side of our work, playing live together is definitely the thing we love more.
Is there anyone ITALOCONNECTION would particularly like to do a remix for in the future?
I really would like to remix NEW ORDER, PET SHOP BOYS and Paul Haig. Recently we had the opportunity to remix Etienne Daho, another of my favourite artists so all is possible.
What is happening next for you, either solo or with ITALOCONNECTION?
A brand new ITALOCONNECTION album is on the way, it took a while to produce the right follow up to ‘Metropoli’, considering also that we have been busy producing and remixing other artists. The album also will feature a host of special guests, more news coming soon…
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Fred Ventura
Special thanks to Sebastian Muravchik of SNS SENSATION and HEARTBREAK
Richard Barbieri releases a new album ‘Under A Spell’, but despite beginning his recorded career in 1978 with JAPAN, it is only his fourth full-length solo offering.
Preferring a collaborative format, when JAPAN disbanded after five albums, Barbieri continued working with his former band mates David Sylvian, Steve Jansen and Mick Karn. It was while he was in JBK with the latter two that he met Steven Wilson of NO-MAN and PORCUPINE TREE who recorded and performed live with the trio.
This led to Barbieri joining PORCUPINE TREE and playing on nine of their albums. During this period, Barbieri also recorded an album with Tim Bowness of NO-MAN and two albums with Steve Hogarth of MARILLION.
His most recent release was the five part ‘Variants’ EP series that comprised of unreleased tracks, new material, live versions including his JAPAN composition ‘The Experience Of Swimming’ and the aural curio ‘1979 Rehearsal Room’ which was based around an atmospheric cassette recording made in rehearsals for the band with which he made his name.
Inspired by strange dreams that Barbieri was having triggered by the anxiety and isolation caused by the pandemic, sombre atmospherics are very much the dominant template for ‘Under A Spell’, capturing dark textures, introspective moods and cerebral downtempo rhythms over its nine tracks.
The unsettling demeanour of ‘Serpentine’ is a particular case in point, inspired by a nightmare that Barbieri had and aurally illustrated by sinister piano, jazzy vibes, schizophrenic cries and the fretless bass of Percy Jones.
While there are no conventional vocals, previous collaborators Rylander Love and Steve Hogarth have their voices manipulated and treated by Barbieri as if they were another instrument, with the phrase “Wake up, wake up, come back alive…” making its eerie presence felt on the album closer ‘Lucid’.
Had the “clearing of the vaults” for the ‘Variants’ series helped with focussing on a direction for ‘Under A Spell’?
Not really. The ‘Variants’ series of EPs was a way of staying creative without having the pressure of making a follow-up to ‘Planets & Persona’.
When I was finally ready to make another album, the Covid virus began to take hold in Italy and the UK. From that point on, I had to make a quite different album to the one I intended.
How does ‘Under A Spell’ differ from ‘Planets + Persona’ in terms of concept, sound design and additional musicians?
It’s more introspective and essentially a home recording, though it does feature a good amount of musical performances from the same group of musicians on my recent works.
Some performances were recorded remotely and some I derived from past recording sessions and used them again, but in different contexts. The concept and working process of ‘Planets…’ was outward looking and expansive in nature. ‘Under A Spell’ is informed by vivid dreams and a strange and surreal exterior atmosphere due to the first strict lockdown in the UK.
Photo by Carl Glover
With everything going on outside, had this affected your approach to ‘Under A Spell’?
Definitely. It also changed the compositional process because I focused even more on the atmospheric and textural elements. I let things evolve and tried to make it a very immersive listening experience.
Is there more use of software this time around or are your vintage synths still very much present?
I use a bit of everything. For the first time, I have a dedicated work room / studio so I have all my gear to hand. I used the usual old analogues (Roland System 700 Lab series, Prophet 5, MicroMoog, Yamaha CS-01) and some newer analogues like the Dreadbox Medusa and NYX. Also the Roland SE-02 mono synth. I used some Arturia software instruments, especially the CS80 emulation.
What is your favourite track on ‘Under A Spell’ and how did it come together?
Although it’s probably the hardest listen, I managed to completely achieve the atmosphere I wanted on the opening title track. It has a full complement of performances, some improvised and some heavily processed and mangled. The basis hinged around a jazzy vibraphone progression that I had wanted to use for a long time, combined with muted acoustic guitars and trumpets and whispering voices. I think it sets the scene very well.
Photo by Fin Costello
JAPAN’s ‘Quiet Life’ album gets the deluxe boxed set treatment in March 2021, how does it stand up for you 41 years on and how do you look back on your own contributions?
I’ve heard the remaster of the album and it sounds wonderful. It’s my favourite JAPAN album and that particular period represents the happiest time for me as a musician. My contributions became an integral part of the band sound for the first time really. I love the textural elements, the orchestrations and how the electronics blend with it all. It’s very much an album of that time but it stands up well and I think it has a beautiful organic quality. It’s a sophisticated work made by kids.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Richard Barbieri
Comprising of Teodora Retegan, Andrei Bobiș, Paul Bucovesan and Oana Pop, ZIMBRU are a synth assisted Romanian art pop quartet with a strong TALKING HEADS influence.
Their promising 2019 debut EP ‘Little Creatures’ offered haunting forlorn vocals, synthy hooks, art school sensibilities and intriguing rhythmic backdrops for the dancefloor.
‘Terejo’ with its rhythmical neo-funk motif imagined what TALKING HEADS might have sounded like as a more electronic band and perhaps unsurprisingly sounded like a female fronted LCD SOUNDSYSTEM.
Showcasing the varied musical facets of ZIMBRU, the ‘Little Creatures’ title song was moodier, constructed around a prominent off-beat and an incessant electronic drive. Their most recent single ‘The Ground’ released in August 2020 reflected the sadness many were feeling around the world in difficult times and acted as something of a cathartic release for the band.
Eager to play live again, ZIMBRU will perform at the Berlin Mixtape virtual concert on THURSDAY 11TH FEBRUARY 2021. Originally conceived as a single band event, it has since developed into a project where six Romanian singers will each a cover song that has a strong connection to the city of Berlin.
The songs were selected by LOLA Magazine based in Berlin while all the singers are managed by Cirkular in Romania. Teodora Retegan from ZIMBRU will be one of the singers while the instrumental parts for all of the songs have been produced by Andrei Bobiș who incidentally is a co-founder of Cirkular. Other featured singers include Sofia Zadar, Geo Aghinea and Adame Wolf among others.
In a break from preparations for their upcoming online event, Teodora Retegan and Andrei Bobiș from ZIMBRU talked about the band’s career to date.
How did ZIMBRU come into being, specifically as a band using electronics?
Andrei: ZIMBRU came into being over e-mail! Teo, Oana and I used to play in another band called LIGHTS OUT and about a year after that was wrapped up, I sent Teo this silly song idea and she recorded some cool vocals and then we realized we really missed each other and spent the next three years writing songs basically. Oana and Paul joined in 2018 and that’s when we started putting a live show together. I guess we liked a lot of artists that have cool arrangements featuring both electronic and acoustic stuff mashed together in interesting / peculiar ways.
The ‘Little Creatures’ EP title and that band name indicate that ZIMBRU have a strong TALKING HEADS influence?
Andrei: We definitely love TALKING HEADS and have danced to many TALKING HEADS records over the years, so I’m sure that plenty of that has subconsciously made it into our music. However the title is not a direct reference to the TALKING HEADS album. It was one of those placeholder titles (until we think of a better one, never actually thinking of one) that kind of started making more and more sense as our debut EP came together. Our latest single ‘The Ground’ has a strong TALKING HEADS influence, as a lot of it was written as I was reading Byrne’s book ‘How Music Works’ – especially the chapter on their work on ‘Speaking In Tongues’ and ‘Remain In Light’.
What other bands have inspired ZIMBRU?
Andrei: Uuh, tough one, a list feels like a weird thing to do so I’ll do the next best thing and point you towards some of the playlists we have curated over the past two years under the DJ BIVOL moniker which are available on our Spotify artist profile.
What was it like to grow up in Romania with the more artistic aspirations you had in your psyche? Was it easy being around people at school who might have preferred football or waiting to be called up for national service?
Teodora: Usually it’s not very desirable to explore this as a career (that goes for anything in the arts department) because there is a lot of poverty in Romania and of course parents would prefer their children having stability and picking a career that would ensure a monthly income. I think most humans have artistic potential, but it’s hard to express it under capitalism because if you can’t monetise it, you don’t stand a chance in doing it more than a hobby. That is very heartbreaking to me. I have been privileged enough to be supported by my family so here I am, trying.
‘Dog Heaven’ was your debut single, how do you look back on it now?
Andrei: Not a single per se, though, as it never had an actual release other than the live version. Uhm, it has been so long since we played it or listened to it that it’s like listening to another band really, but maybe time passing hasn’t really changed anything about it? I bet I’d still be pretty pumped to play it if playing music was still a thing.
How did you decide between singing in your own language and English?
Teodora: Honestly I don’t know how much of a conscious decision it was. Growing up in post revolution Romania, we had all these brands and music channels and fast food chains entering our country and for a while we thought all things western were Jesus Christ. You could hear English songs on the radio and you thought “ah this is so cool, can I do that?”. Romanian is beautiful though, I’ll try to write more in română.
Both ‘Terejo’ and ‘Dyo’ sound like an enigmatic female fronted LCD SOUNDSYSTEM? Have they been an inspiration to ZIMBRU, in particular with their use of electronics?
Andrei: Yeah, definitely an influence, we even used to do a cover of ‘I Can Change’ live, though probably more of an influence in their use of cowbells than their use of electronics.
The union between art and music is particularly prevalent in ZIMBRU’s video for ‘Divination’, how important is this ethos to you as a band?
Andrei: Well, we put our hearts into the songs and everything we make around the songs, be it videos, photos or anything else – and I guess that’s the highly relevant part, creating some sort of context for the music that means something and is truly genuine. However not taking ourselves too seriously is also a thing that matters, so you know, which art, what music?
Your most recent single ‘The Ground’ has been described as your saddest (which is quite fitting with the current situation) and it calls for kinship with Mother Nature, please describe the song’s genesis?
Teodora: My father was doing some gardening in lockdown and I joined him on this particularly windy day, I think we planted radishes and lots of onions. Here comes the cliché part *ah revelations* where after months of isolation, I start feeling connected to the soil, I shove my fingers in the ground like I never knew it was there all along. So I went into a permaculture spiralling spiritual phase and made everybody watch documentaries about the ground, probably annoyed them a bit, and after a while the song came to life. Maybe I did not annoy them that much, we’re nature loving hobbits…
The do-it-yourself video for ‘The Ground’ makes a strong visual statement, how did you come up with the concept?
Teodora: We wanted something simple and filled with love. We made it one afternoon in Oana’s garden and it’s probably one of my favourite days up to this point. There is something magic about seemingly mundane activities such as hanging out with friends outside. It’s a small treasure I don’t want to take for granted again.
Is ‘Slow Disco’ actually a metaphor as opposed to being about dancing?
Andrei: Actually it is quite a literal title, the early instrumental version sounded like a disco track that was slowed down. As with ‘Little Creatures’, it was a placeholder title that stuck and started to make a lot more sense as time went on. Looking through the studio computer, I actually found that before it was named ‘Slow Disco’, it had yet another placeholder title, ‘Indina’, can’t quite remember why.
What is the band’s format and ethos with presenting music live?
Teodora: I think we often laugh about how we want to be punk on stage. I am not sure it’s the energy we exude but we sure as hell want it to be. Maybe after more than half a year of not doing any shows we will be 100% punk!
ZIMBRU have a small back catalogue so far of several singles and an EP, what are your future plans for recording and releases?
Andrei: I don’t know what kind of plans you could possibly make given the context. We’d love to write new things and that’s about the only thing on our mind right now. We don’t really sit on our music so you’ll be hearing from us soonish (fingers crossed).
Does the increasing profile of MOLCHAT DOMA from Belarus give you any encouragement with regards alternative Eastern European acts making breakthroughs to Western audiences?
Andrei: I think a lot of music coming out of Eastern Europe is either sold as a token – like MOLCHAT DOMA – or as an exotic item to western audiences, like a lot of acts that play music with “oriental” influences, for example. Both are equally bad. Of course, I’m more than happy that these acts have found an audience, but it doesn’t mean much. The one thing that is exciting is that it feels that some of the gatekeeping events like showcase festivals have become increasingly accessible.
What are your hopes and fears as a band and as people as 2021 begins?
Teodora: My hope is that we’ll write more songs about nature and non-human animals and maybe do something more on the activist side of things. And my *personal* and kind of two years in the future dream is to start a queer commune and a sanctuary! I might never stop if I start talking about fears, so I’ll be nice and spare you!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to ZIMBRU
Special thanks to Ingo Tegge at Goethe-Zentrum Klausenburg
Berlin Mixtape featuring ZIMBRU will be streamed via Facebook on THURSDAY 11TH FEBRUARY 2021 at 1700 GMT / 1900 EET. Event information and a list of the covered songs with their respective singers can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/events/3058774840892550
Although JAPAN had something of a shaky start with their first two albums ‘Adolescent Sex’ and ‘Obscure Alternatives’ in 1978, the seeds of an more electronically assisted direction were sown on the Giorgio Moroder produced single ‘Life In Tokyo’ in early 1979.
Now acknowledged as the bridge between growly funk-rock JAPAN and the more familiar, mannered and artier version of the group recognised by most today, ‘Life In Tokyo’ was a key interim milestone in their career as the first recording that the band were happy with.
The classic quintet line-up of JAPAN with David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean had found enormous success in the country of Japan as well as having more moderate but significant sales in Holland and Canada. So their German-owned label Ariola Hansa persevered, while manager Simon Napier-Bell was still convinced he had group of future stars on his hands.
For their third album ‘Quiet Life’, front man David Sylvian adopted a more crooning baritone style of singing. Meanwhile Mick Karn’s distinctively fluid fretless bass was pushed right up to the front, intricately complemented in the rhythm section by drummer Steve Jansen. Taking in a more atmospheric European approach compared to their earlier work, guitarist Rob Dean and keyboardist Richard Barbieri provided the exquisite textural backdrop.
Produced by John Punter who had worked on ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Country Life’, JAPAN had found a willing conspirator in the studio who not only believed in them, but who they got on well with on a personal level. The Englishman loved the band so much, he even went to tour with them to mix their live sound. But as the quintet embraced synthesizers, sequencers, E-Bows, muzak and orchestrations, some critics accused JAPAN of being a lavish Roxy rip-off.
‘Quiet Life’ was issued in December 1979 in Holland, Japan and Germany before being given a UK release in January 1980.
Although the album peaked at No72 in the UK, it was a major step forward as a quality timeless work that all five members of the band were collectively satisfied with.
Despite their melancholic outlook on life and their detached demeanour, the public eventually caught up with JAPAN when their style was embraced by the New Romantic movement, with the title song even belatedly becoming a UK hit when released as a single in September 1981.
‘Quiet Life’ consolidated JAPAN’s success in Japan itself, reaching the Top30. Their audience also expanded in Europe, pointing them in the right direction and towards Virgin Records who released the albums ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ before the band finally disbanded in late 1982 after their biggest ever concert tour which took in the UK, Europe and the Far East.
With a new remaster of ‘Quiet Life’ by Miles Showell at Abbey Road and boxed set due, Rob Dean kindly gave an eye witness account into the making of an album that still stands up 41 years after its UK release.
Between the ‘Obscure Alternatives’ and ‘Quiet Life’ albums, JAPAN were in a state of transition from the growly glam funk of ‘Adolescent Sex’ to the mannered artful combo people remember them for today. How conscious had this been as David Sylvian’s voice completely changed, while Mick Karn came to the jazzy fore with his fretless bass playing and your own guitar style moved from rock to something more textural?
Well I think a band owes it to itself (and its audience) to evolve and grow. The first album was basically a band in its infancy attempting to make a cohesive record with a large list of original songs that had been accrued up to that point. The second was a band more accustomed to playing as a live unit and finding its identity with its newest material.
There is always I think an indication of the direction a band will take somewhere from one album to the next. For ‘Adolescent Sex’, it was ‘Communist China’, for ‘Obscure Alternatives’ it was ‘The Tenant’. It all comes down to influences and what the band was generally listening to moving forward.
By the time of creating the material for ‘Quiet Life’, it was KRAFTWERK, Eno, Moroder, Peter Gabriel and Bowie of course to name a few. So to answer your question, I think we all felt that ‘Quiet Life’ had to be drastically different to what preceded it and the band as musicians were finding their own respective voices. Clearly Mick’s approach to bass and David’s change in vocal style were strong motivators in this. For myself (and Steve and Rich I’m sure), it felt like a logical progression also.
Photo by Patrick Lichfield
‘European Son’ (which didn’t actually get an official release until 1980 on the Japanese edition of ‘I Second That Emotion’) and ‘Life In Tokyo’ were two songs recorded in that interim period but both are quite different to the majority of the material on the ‘Quiet Life’ album, how was it finding your feet as a band with a new direction?
Obviously ‘Life In Tokyo’ was seen as a “one off” with Giorgio Moroder at the helm. Had it been a big hit as was hoped by all involved at the time, then perhaps it would have been a logical step to have him produce the third album. If he had, then I’m pretty sure it would be quite different. For one thing, he pushed for co-rights on tracks that he produced.
‘European Son’ was in some ways a song that would suggest that Giorgio wasn’t needed to create an electro-disco song. The reason it didn’t get released until much later was purely because it was never totally finished. Live, we played it in a few different incarnations but I did not record any part I was happy with on it, and that is mainly why. I was concerned foremost about not creating ‘Life In Tokyo version II’. So that one was a bit of a struggle.
As far as “finding your feet with a new direction”, the notion doesn’t really enter into it. You don’t really think about it, other than creating parts for songs that you feel fit and that you are all happy with just as you always do.
Can you remember your thoughts when the band were presented with the songs for ‘Quiet Life’?
Most were presented in the rehearsal studio as they always had been, with David playing a chord structure on guitar and us all starting to build from that. I do remember clearly that he and Rich had been working from home on the germ of an idea which was the song ‘Alien’ (which was at one time going to be the album title, until we learned that Ridley Scott’s film of the same name was due for release!) and in this embryonic stage, it was very different – a slow, brooding, somewhat uncompromising piece. I guess we all felt it wasn’t working and so it was shelved and resurrected in a far more palatable form later on.
In terms of arrangement, what was discussed between the band members? What was the dynamic at the time?
I remember we were in a cab on our way to a first meeting with John Punter and David Sylvian mentioned for the first time using orchestration on a couple of tracks. This was a surprise, but not in any way a negative one. It felt right, considering the songs that we were creating and their more epic scope. As far as general arrangements, we all knew when we were onto something that worked I’d say. We were all very positive about what we were doing and where the new material was going.
How crucial was producer John Punter in the realisation of the ‘Quiet Life’ album?
When we met John Punter, we all hit it off straight away. His warmth and enthusiasm was infectious and from our first meeting, we had nothing but positive thoughts about the forthcoming album sessions.
He made the entire experience a relaxed and enjoyable one for everyone involved, and I think that comes across in what was produced.
John Punter co-produced ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Country Life’ but apparently Bryan Ferry wasn’t too impressed about him working with JAPAN?
He told us that he bumped into Bryan Ferry at AIR later on and was berated for working with us. Whether in jest or not, I can’t say. I guess Bryan Ferry must have thought we were invading his territory or something.
What was it like to work at AIR Studios in terms of atmosphere, environment and equipment? Was Richard Barbieri quite lost in the range of keyboards and synthesizers that were available there for example?
AIR had a wonderful atmosphere. The four studio complex meant there were always interesting artists to brush shoulders with and converse with upstairs in the cafe and pool table area. It was impeccably run and a very positive environment to work in. The studios themselves were all state-of-the art. Despite what you might think, there were not banks of musical equipment to be used other than grand pianos, though. Any instruments other than our own would be rented from outside.
It was cool to go to the nearby pub for a break and be sharing a pint with the likes of Chris Thomas, and John Cale… yes, even David Sylvian went to the pub! I think it helped that John Punter was so well-known and liked around AIR.
THE PRETENDERS were there recording their debut album. Chrissie Hynde was very nice to us but the rest were kind of jerks. One day we arrived at the studio and the guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott had left us a bag full of cheap make up. He thought it was funny. We caught him giggling with his band mates about it, like kids playing a prank in the playground…
Would you be recording the songs one by one, or would there be several things going on at once depending on mood and ideas?
Generally the aim would be to get a definitive take of the drums first, then bass, and so on. Some days would be designated for a particular song and some for a particular instrument, it varied. If there was a problem with one, we would move onto another.
The title track was pivotal and is now held up as an iconic electronic pop single. Can you remember how the song developed and how everyone worked their parts in, because it does sound very much like a joint effort where everyone is firing on all cylinders?
‘Quiet Life’ was pretty much totally realised in our dingy rehearsal room in Willesden. I think the bass part was very integral to how the song developed. As was expected, Mick and Steve worked very tightly together. Sometimes we left them to work on their parts for a while and then added to that. I think the sequencer was part of the strong foundation too. The E-Bow solo was improvised in the studio, but the rest of the guitar parts were already established.
‘Fall In Love With Me’ featured a blistering E-Bowed lead line from yourself, how did you find adapting to this technique, had it opened up a whole new world for you?
Well actually, there is no E-Bow on that track. The verse guitar part is distorted fuzz guitar. But I was however very happy to discover the E-Bow. For a while, I was endeavouring to create thick sustained lead lines with mixed results. Invariably when recorded, they would sound trebly and thin when placed into a track. The E-Bow eliminated this. It was as if it was made for me.
Both ‘Fall In Love With Me’ and ‘Halloween’ had these fading endings to when the band stops playing, had there been any debates as to whether to have them like “live band endings” at full volume or were the fades intentional as a concept?
Some songs are created to end and others not. When recorded, those didn’t have distinct endings but kind of kept steaming ahead. In the mixing stage, the idea of long fades seemed appropriate for both. It just so happened that they just about made it to the end of the takes! And within the context of the album, they worked in respect to the start of the next track. In the case of ‘Fall In Love With Me’, it’s just one of those driving, insistent rhythms that as a musician you are enjoying so much you don’t want it to end, so a fade eliminates that conundrum. Plus, John Punter loved a long fade!
Although lyrically, many of the songs on ‘Quiet Life’ have this doomed romantic demeanour about them, ‘Halloween’ was about the Cold War aftermath of Berlin and the rockiest track on the album? It screams rather like the film of the same name…
Well I think the title conjures up darkness and menace and therefore there needs to be some urgency to the guitars too. A scream seemed appropriate. Even the auto-wah guitar figure in the middle section tied with the synth emphasizes that.
‘Alien’ allowed to you play at being Robert Fripp, had he become a big influence on you by this time? Who were the other guitarists you may have looked to for inspiration on the ‘Quiet Life’ album?
When you have a new toy, you naturally want to play with it! In this case there were two, the E-Bow and my new Gibson RD Artist guitar with its Moog designed active electronics which proved to be a match made in heaven for me. Both very instrumental in the new sounds I was creating. My strongest influences then were naturally Fripp, but also John McGeoch (I was a huge MAGAZINE fan), Ricky Gardiner, Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick.
You didn’t play on the en Français piano mood piece ‘Despair’, so what happens when you are told that your contribution is not required for a track?
I saw ‘Despair’ as something of a companion piece to ‘The Tenant’ from ‘Obscure Alternatives’. I wasn’t instructed to not play on it, it was my own decision. I am always of the mind that if it is not essentially necessary, then why contribute? I didn’t want to play some cursory E-Bow if the piece didn’t require it and that’s how I felt in this case.
Often when I wasn’t needed, I would be reading quietly in a corner somewhere or perhaps playing Space Invaders upstairs. Sometimes if it was anticipated that this would be a lengthy period, then I would catch a film matinee.
In the case of ‘Despair’, there was a bit of labour over Mick’s efforts in trying to play bowed double bass on it. Although he was unquestionably a talented multi-instrumentalist, in this case it defeated him and an outside session player was brought in. Memorably Kate Bush was in Studio 1 and invited to listen to a mix of it by Jon Jacobs, the tape op who had worked with her on ‘Never For Ever’. She sat cross-legged on the floor while we all sat around quietly and when it was over, in typical KB fashion she said “Oh wow, it’s so big, isn’t it?”
Photo by Patrick Lichfield
The ‘Quiet Life’ album includes a reinterpretation of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ but that wasn’t originally recorded during these sessions, but appears to originate from the same time as ‘European Son’ at DJM Studios? How did the decision to do a cover get made? Did you like the song yourself?
I was of course familiar with the song from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND. I had seen Nico live a couple of times and loved her voice, too. As a band, it was not unusual for us to take someone else’s song and adapt it and this was no exception. I personally was very happy with how it turned out. I think we changed it up sufficiently to put our mark on it. It was way better than Ferry’s rather average version, which came much later, I might add!
The ‘Quiet Life’ album was notable for the use of an orchestra on ‘In Vogue’ and ‘The Other Side Of Life’. The end results were quite beautiful but how was the challenge for the band of integrating your parts into this classical template?
In both cases, the band tracks were complete (except the finished vocal which would be added last). So it was not a case of us adapting to the orchestral arrangements but the exact reverse. Ann O’Dell was given a rough mix of both to write her score around.
So in the case of ‘The Other Side Of Life’, for instance, I think the already recorded instruments would have influenced the feel and approach that Ann O’Dell took with the score. The orchestra played off the syncopation of the bass and drums in the long instrumental outro quite noticeably too.
It is on record that ‘Quiet Life’ was the first album that all five band members were totally satisfied with… in an album of great moments, do you have a particular favourite moment?
I think it was actually standing in the studio while the orchestra were playing on ‘The Other Side Of Life’. Listening to an orchestra playing live to the music you helped create is a real buzz, I can tell you. It took those tracks to an entirely other level. I almost got a stiffy! As a track it was a new high mark of maturity for us.
The instrumental ‘A Foreign Place’ was recorded during the album sessions and shelved, although it came out as a B-side in 1981. Was there any other material that you worked on like ‘Can’t Get Enough’?
Like what? We never had a song with that title! But to answer your question, the band were always very low on unreleased material. Basically what was recorded was officially released… eventually.
The ‘Quiet Life’ album cover photo session with Fin Costello saw the band captured behind glass, yet the finished artwork only had David Sylvian on the front! A sign?
The original concept for the cover when it was still titled ‘Alien’ was of five fold-out panels with each panel a photo of each of us with our own concept. I don’t think there was ever any doubt that David’s would be the front panel. I’m sure that’s what Simon Napier-Bell and Hansa had in mind. Plus from ‘Obscure Alternatives’ onwards, Fin Costello was always putting him front and centre. By that point, it was already a given so no surprise to anyone.
So you had this great album in the can but the UK label doesn’t want to release any singles off it, not even the magnificent ‘Quiet Life’ title song, and a cover version of ‘I Second That Emotion’ was released instead. Was this a Simon Napier-Bell intervention? What did the band think?
I wouldn’t say it was SNB’s doing. As a creative entity where the band was concerned, he was a bit of a non-starter and by that time, his input was somewhat minimal. All he could do was suggest and that mostly fell on deaf ears. I’m sure it was Hansa being desperate after the lack of success with ‘Life In Tokyo’ which must have seemed like a no-brainer. By that point they were panicking and really had next to no idea how to market us.
So a song that people ought to be familiar was all they had to relate to (despite rumours to the contrary, the song was our choice, however). After all, they were all BONEY M and Amii Stewart. They didn’t have a clue. And I think us being associated with that label didn’t help our credibility either.
‘Quiet Life’ was undoubtedly JAPAN’s breakthrough record, how did you feel when the album was embraced by the New Romantic movement and then the title song was a belated hit single in 1981?
Unfortunately having left and living in California by that time, I was as you can imagine somewhat removed from that. Still, you always have to believe in yourself and it wasn’t a surprise. It was, of course, well-deserved and definitely not before time. I was proud to have been a part of it. It would have been nice to have performed just once on ‘Top Of The Pops’ but I still have enough good memories of that time to keep with me.
What are your thoughts on the ‘Quiet Life’ album now with this deluxe reissue, does it still trigger any emotions 40 years on?
For many many years, anything that referred to those times felt like I was talking about a different person. Of course recently, I’ve been recording again and so I’ve grown to be more comfortable with that period of my life and in a small way, I have been assisting BMG with this reissue. I just want it to be the best it can under the circumstances and something the fans will appreciate. To me at this time, it’s all about the fans and their continued support. It’s something I am very proud of. Six people working towards the same goal. A time of great adventure, creativity and happiness. I’ll stop now. There’s something in my eye…
Of course, this era of JAPAN have their legacy, most notably in the form of DURAN DURAN, do have you any thoughts? 😉
I like to think that without us, there might not be a TALK TALK… but why does everyone keep referring to a character played by the actor Milo O’Shea in ‘Barbarella’? I don’t get it…
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Rob Dean
‘Quiet Life’ is reissued by BMG on 5th March 2021 as a 3CD+LP Abbey Road half-speed remastered deluxe edition boxed set featuring the original album and non-album tracks ‘Life In Tokyo’, ‘European Son’, ‘I Second That Emotion’ and ‘A Foreign Place’, as well as the full 1980 ‘Live at Budokan’ concert