Along with VILE ELECTRODES, KATSEN and ARTHUR & MARTHA, Teeside’s MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO were among a wave of independent British acts who rode alongside more mainstream acts like LA ROUX, LITTLE BOOTS, HURTS and MIRRORS to use the synthesizer as their prime musical weapon of choice following the extended hangover after Britpop.
Comprising of two cousins Kev Oyston and Rob Boggild, MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO only released one album ‘Music & Machines’ in 2008.
While the duo quietly disbanded afterwards, their songs on dystopian themes such as surveillance and artificial intelligence have become scarily prophetic… “machines have eyes” indeed as the smart phone and voice-control systems like Alexa embed themselves into society without a flinch.
Ten years on from ‘Music & Machines’, Kev Oyston kindly took time to chat about his time with MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO, his continuing admiration for GARY NUMAN and his new more unorthodox musical project THE SOULLESS PARTY…
MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO was something of a family affair?
It certainly was. I teamed up with my cousin Rob who is something of a whizz on the synths. We grew up quite close. Almost like brothers. He had a loft conversion which was built in the early 80s to house his nifty collection of synths. He had a college band with his best mate and they spent many an hour composing tracks or doing covers. I was a tad younger, so when I visited, I’d lurk around the loft ladders listening in to all the strange and wonderful synthy noises. I had already become fascinated in that sound at quite a young age. I’d already been taken in by KRAFTWERK, JEAN MICHEL JARRE, VISAGE and of course GARY NUMAN.
By early 2000s, I’d started writing actual songs and this is when Rob caught on to what I was up to and wanted to share in writing duties too. The ‘Myspace’ era was taking off and it was then we decided to take what tracks we had out on the road.
What artists were you particularly influenced by?
As mentioned already, I was a huge fan of early Numan and of course KRAFTWERK. It was the usual late 70s – early 80s synth crowd really. However, from the late 80s and even till now, I still regard JOHN FOXX’s first seminal album ‘Metamatic’ as one of my favourite albums of all time.
When I heard the album for the very first time in the early 80s, I hated it. It didn’t make for comfortable listening to my, probably, very young tastes. However, as I got older, I revisited it, almost by mistake. My thoughts and tastes had obviously completely changed. I was completely blown away by it. He was far ahead of his time and I just love the cold, concrete sounds and effects that he uses to which his voice perfectly complements in such an eerie way. A sublime atmospheric album. It was an album never to be repeated though, in my opinion, as I don’t think he could quite capture that feeling in the same way with his future offerings.
Back then, SH101, Korg Microkorg, Access Virus, Alesis Micron – even a Stylophone. I very much welcome the retro synths that are coming out now. Those original sounds are still the best and sound just as warm and juicy as they did originally. I’d like to get my hands on an original Moog of course! Wouldn’t we all?!
‘Think Like You’ had a few Numanesque mannerisms…
Yeah, you could say that. I think Numan had always been a bit of an influence for my MIT stuff. I don’t have the best singing voice, but I did try to bring in different and ‘familiar’ inflections that were reminiscent from singers in the 70s and 80s. Not a direct mimic, but a similar tone to say, Numan, Midge Ure and even a bit of Oakey. Not sure if it came out that way.
Just out of interest, what do you think of Numan’s recent creative rebirth with ‘Savage’, which appears to have finally achieved more of a right balance between synths and rock?
It’s nice to see. I’ll always try to catch a Numan gig where I can. It’s lovely to hear him do the classics of course, but his new stuff is also up there with being quite catchy and riffy. I know he hit some rough patches musically for many years, but he’s turned it around for the better.
I know from what I’ve seen and read, he’s a true family man and they have played a big part in encouraging him to keep going and getting stronger. He’s achingly lovely and humble in interviews and to hear how he’s coped with personal battles is inspiring stuff. He could have easily given it up I’m sure, but with that support he’s had, its brilliant to see him bouncing back in a big way and signing up to a large label.
‘What’s The Matter With You? featured KID MOXIE way before the profile she has now within music? How did the collaboration come about?
It was really a favour for a favour as I’d already done a couple of little remixes for Eleni and we’d always be talking and sharing ideas. It was a pleasure to have her do the backing on that particular track. It was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek humorous number. I think with Eleni’s vocals, it worked pretty well.
Yes, it was rather a cheeky nod to them, I think. I just liked that glammy sound at the time and wanted to utilise something similar.
Of course, always been a huge GOLDFRAPP fan since their ‘Felt Mountain’ album, so it was obviously another influence at the time.
‘Machines’ is more than relevant today, especially in the context of the internet and social media?
Well, it was kind of written with the internet in view and bearing in mind it was the early days of social media as, again it was the ‘Myspace’ thing that was happening back then when it was written, there was a general feeling of being ‘watched’ or looked at by lots of strange people. I think it was with that paranoia in mind that the track was written.
Now everyone can be looked at and watched or judged by millions of strange people without your knowing!
MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO were doing quite a bit of remix work for acts like KID MOXIE and RED BLOODED WOMEN…
Yes, I really enjoyed working with lots of different artists. Again, it was the early ‘Myspace’ days and a lot of musicians would talk and support each other in many different ways. For me, remixing was a way to try and grow my own knowledge, technical ability and experience. It was an opportunity to experiment with music that wasn’t my own and to see what I could do to make a track sound interesting and different from its original form.
It was nice of the artists I worked with to let me run free, so to speak, on their tracks. I listen back now to some of those mixes and I can detect a lot of naivety and very rough edges on my part as I tried to do different things. It was a big learning curve.
Not at all. I never viewed what we were doing as a meal ticket to huge success. My view was and always has been – As long as you enjoy what you do and the music you make, and you don’t set any unreal expectations, you’ll be fine. You never know what might happen.
But if you put too much pressure on yourself to be seen in all the right places or trying to make the most ‘current’ music just because you desperately want to be heard by a label, then it becomes too much of a chore and unenjoyable. It can all end abruptly and with an empty feeling.
But after a London gig in late 2008, MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO sort of disappeared, what happened?
Life stuff happened really. I got married and we’ve now got 2 lovely little boys. My hair rapidly turned grey over night with a few wrinkles and a nicely nurtured Dad bod! I’m not sure I would cut a dash as the lead singer of a pop band these days! So nowadays I keep a low profile behind the safety of a synthesizer and laptop. I’m now writing under the guise of THE SOULLESS PARTY where the sounds are slightly darker and sinister compared to MIT.
However, I still like to keep up to press with the latest electronic releases thanks to you guys at TEC and Electronic Sound mag. I try to keep my ear close to the ground and regularly listen to music on Bandcamp and Soundcloud to find something new and different. I even have a regular radio slot on BBC Tees where I talk about latest electronic releases.
I’m really quite happy with what we achieved. Admittedly, I think we were an amateur act that were trying to experiment and get things to sound right. We did okay. We also seemed to be a little bit on the cusp of being in the right place at the right time.
There were a lot of similar or likeminded synth acts about at the time and the London scene was seeing a nice little resurge in live electronic acts and it was lovely to be a part of that. The best show I think we played at was Bedsitland hosted by Tracy McKenzie and the lovely Wiggy who sadly passed away. It just seemed to be the right atmosphere and crowd for us that night. I guess more nights like that would have suited us.
Possibly the best MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO song ‘A Soulless Party’ wasn’t included on the album; why was that?
Do you know, I don’t know? I can’t remember if we were going to use it as a B-Side to a potential CD single release thing that never happened. I’m pleased you liked it. I’m seriously thinking about doing a little re-issue of Music and Machines and will probably get it put on there.
KATSEN did a great cover of it…
Yes, it was a nice little boppy version they did of it with Chris Blackburn running the vox. I think it suited their vibe pretty well. I was actually very flattered they did it and have always liked what Chris does. We originally clicked by having similar interests and I asked if I could mix an old KATSEN track called ‘I’m A Doctor’ which I had fun doing. He asked me to mix a few more tracks from then on. Many years had passed, and it was a nice surprise to be asked to do a remix again for him.
Of course, this song inspired the moniker of your current project THE SOULLESS PARTY, how does this musically differ from MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO?
Massively different. I think as I’ve gotten older and slowed down a bit, I’ve started to appreciate the wider field of music and what it has to offer. I’m heavily into Jazz and classical music. My heart still beats for the electronic sound though.
Yes, we really like Eleni from KID MOXIE. She was such a sport to let me remix for her in the past etc. It was equally lovely that she asked if she could take an existing track that that was written for my ‘Tales From The Black Meadow’ project and do a version of it for her album. It’s testament to how versatile she is as an artist and how willing she is to try different things and experiment with her music. I think it suited the album’s theme really well.
Fast forward to today, and distributing music to retail via digital is more straightforward as well as more independent radio stations and bloggers on the web; so is this a blessing or does that mean there’s an even bigger sea of varying quality to wade through to be noticed?
It’s nice to be able to sell on digital platforms like Bandcamp who are massively fair to hard working artists and musicians. You can also use Bandcamp to sell your own CDs and vinyl, and again, they are fantastically fair on how you get paid as an artist for your product.
On the other hand, and this may sound a bit like a rant – it’s quite a kick in the teeth if you’re trying to get heard on popular platforms such as Spotify or iTunes as the rewards for plays or purchases are astonishingly miniscule and insignificant. It almost feels pointless to place yourself on these platforms as there isn’t any good way to be found or categorised properly and you’d be instantly lost in the melee of other artists. On top of that, we are poorly paid due to the fat cat owners of these platforms taking ginormous chunks for themselves. There’s always someone who is going to profit. It’s like you’re paying them a huge sum, simply to have the privilege of being on their site.
There’s plenty of things happening out there now as the creation of electronic music has become even more easier thanks to advances in technology. I’m pretty excited about a new act who are starting to hit the mainstream music media already and they are INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP; a fabulous blend of late 70s disco, Moroder and KRAFTWERK sensibilities. Just great to hear. I’m probably going to sound biased (because he’s a mate), but CONCRETISM is another artist who grabs my attention due to the fact that he creates electronic music that completely evokes the Cold War era and sounds like old mangled tapes and Public Information Films set to beautiful synthesizer tunes.
So what’s happening with THE SOULLESS PARTY and future releases?
Well THE SOULLESS PARTY is really myself writing the music and my friend Chris Lambert who writes stories that basically are borne out of the music I write. The main project I’ve been working on with Chris is entitled ‘Tales from the Black Meadow’ and is basically a concept album based on a created universe taking in real life and folkloric stories that take place on the North York Moors.
I try to blend electronic and synth sounds with orchestral sounds and instruments. I suppose in someway it can be described as ‘haunting’ or ‘radiophonic’.
It was originally released in 2013 and I was a bit shocked at the response it got. For the first time, I started to get radio plays, magazine reviews and articles on the project and was even asked to take it out on the road for live shows. There’s still quite a following for it and I’m happy to say it always sells pretty well on re-release.
So, call us unoriginal, but we’re about to release a sequel album and book in 2019 entitled ‘The Black Meadow Archive: Volume 1’ and we’re proud to say that it’ll be initially released on vinyl with the brilliant Castles in Space label.
Any advice you would give to an aspiring independent electronic musician?
I can probably echo what I mentioned earlier in this interview and encourage anyone who is aspiring to do this or are just starting out, to really enjoy what they’re doing. Get in to it and don’t pressure yourself to make music just to please others. Make the sounds you enjoy, and you’ll never know who may just pick up on it.
Use a platform like Bandcamp because it’s for real independent artists and musicians who are passionate about their sound!Use Soundcloud to demo your sound to the world and Tweet about it! I think Twitter massively outweighs Facebook as a great way to talk about your music. Also, think about uploading your stuff on places like BBC Introducing and try not to fret about how bad or good it may sound!
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Kev Oyston
MOTORBIKES IN TOKYO ‘Music & Machines’ can be downloaded for free from Bandcamp at https://motorbikesintokyo.bandcamp.com/album/music-and-machines
THE SOULLESS PARTY ‘Tales From The Black Meadow’ is available direct from https://thesoullessparty.bandcamp.com/
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
20th December 2018