On a balmy spring evening in London’s Hoxton district, excited fans gathered to witness the return of Australian synth sensations PARRALOX.
For the uninitiated, PARRALOX are a duo from Melbourne who have produced some of the finest electro tunes of the 21st century. The mastermind behind the band is John von Ahlen, a one man creative powerhouse who not only writes and produces all of their songs, but designs the CD sleeves and directs their videos as well!
Much has happened since their last show in London in late 2008. A change of line up saw Amii Jackson taking over vocal duties, and the band released their second album, ‘State Of Decay’, a highly polished collection of electro pop gems. Both this and the ensuing EP single releases have received worldwide acclaim and expanded their fanbase still further. For those who had made the journey to London for this show, anticipation was running high.
Taking to the stage to a rapturous reception, the band launched into ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, the first of a five track set taken exclusively from their second album. Amii proved to a sassy and confident front woman, with a pitch perfect vocal delivery. John Von Ahlen looked relaxed on Korg synth and backing vocal duties. ‘Hotter’, ‘Beautiful World’ and ‘I Am Human’ followed in quick succession with the crowd dancing and singing along to every word. The main set concluded with a roof-raising rendition of the band’s recent single (and arguably their finest moment to date), ‘Isn’t It Strange?’.
Given the enthusiasm of the crowd, there was no way the band would be allowed to leave after five songs! And so, by popular demand, came the encores. First up was a premier of the brand new track and forthcoming single ‘Supermagic’. John then took over lead vocals for a solo rendition of ‘Moonwalking’. But still the audience demanded more! For the final track Amii announced they would be playing “John’s favourite song”, and to the delight of the fans this turned out to be ‘Empty’, the infectious B-side from the ‘Isn’t It Strange?’ EP.
For those present this was a special evening, with a celebratory atmosphere and the chance for PARRALOX to bond in person with some of their loyal fanbase. Making my way home that night, I hoped that they are on the verge of much greater success which they so richly deserve. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if, on a future visit to London, they were to play a headline set at Hammersmith, or even Wembley? If nothing else, I’d love to see their stage set, which would no doubt be stylish, futuristic and designed by John Von Ahlen himself!
A few days after the gig, John Von Ahlen and Amii Jackson from PARRALOX had a chat over lunch with The Electricity Club before they headed back on the long journey to Melbourne…
‘State Of Decay’ has seen a move towards a more pure pop sound as opposed to the electro of ‘Electricity’. How do you think the album has been received now you’ve had time to take stock?
John: How’s it been received, I think it’s been received rather well. A good way to describe it is the original ‘Electricity’ album was me basically purging all my pop influences and paying homage to all the acts that lead me to where I was. I think ‘Electricity’ has a lot of overt references both in the production and the writing whereas ‘State Of Decay’ is moving towards a more individual identity for PARRALOX. So less borrowing of obvious influences, in both sound and reference. I’ve gotten all the homage out of my system. The reception has been more positive from the feedback that I’ve received from fans which are the people that count… the people that bought the records.
And the people that have reviewed the record, the reception has been positive and we’re getting comparisons like DEPECHE MODE meets MADONNA which to me is not a bad thing.
Amii: But you can still hear the obvious influences at the same time.
John: You know how bands have got the second album syndrome? We were too busy writing music to even worry about it and here we are on our third album now. I don’t need to worry about that anymore.
Amii: I think when I first joined the group, I didn’t really give it a second thought that I was actually replacing a vocalist. But I think that was a good thing because I just kinda came in and I was quite relaxed about it, that really helped. It wasn’t until towards the end of the album I actually went “Oh sh*t, I hope everyone likes it” and the fanbase that was already established, “are they going to accept me?” which they did. So it’s been amazing. Yeah, everyone’s really embraced me as a vocalist. I don’t think there was a huge difference in Roxy and my style of vocal which I think really helped. I think if you’d have replaced her with someone with a completely different style, it would have been a completely different sound but I think we still stuck to quite a similar kind of sound. It was an easy transition.
How did your appearances in Germany and Sweden go? Did you notice any differences between the audiences in each of the different cities you have played to so far?
John: The audience basically were mad for us! Without patting myself on the back, they loved us! In Dresden, they screamed for 3 encores. We literally ran out of songs and for the last song, we were basically on stage scratching our heads and we were saying to the audience “we can’t play anymore songs, we’ll reprise on of the songs we’ve done”! I wanted to do another ‘unplugged’ similar to what we did at our first London gig at Industry and if I was a human beat box, I’d provide the drum track but I saw the drum kit on stage and said “it’s a shame the drummer from VERSUS isn’t here” and somebody shouted out. In two seconds the drummer hopped onto stage to play live drums while I played keys with Amii to ‘Isn’t It Strange?’.
Berlin was amazing as well, but the fans that we’ve met have been so passionate and you can see they’re a bit nervous when they meet you but Amii and I are very down-to-earth, very approachable. We try and talk to everybody.
Amii: That has a lot to do with the point, not that we’re ‘old’ but being a little bit older, we’ve had normal lives for such a long time that even if something big happens tomorrow, you’re your own person.
John: It wouldn’t go to our heads. And independently, we’ve been in other bands and performed on stage. I’ve been appearing on stage for 10-15 years and Amii hasn’t had that long because obviously, she’s not that old but Amii’s done PAs and stuff like that *laughs*
Gothenburg with UNIVERSAL POPLAB from Wonderland Records – that gig was full house, people were screaming.
It was great to see you play in London again. How was the gig for you?
John: We had some fans who had travelled 3 or 4 hours and forged sick certificates just to come and see us! They were literally banging their hands on the stage and screaming for 3 encores. Each encore, I kept saying to Amii “we should do this one” but I knew I didn’t want to push Amii’s voice too much as we were very tired from the tour. But we felt we’d come all this way, we need to give the fans what they want which was more songs. It was a thrill for us too. We spent half our time signing CDs; so very well received everywhere we played. The people that have come to the gig have specifically come to see the band so it’s quite easy to feel good about the performance.
Amii: Because we are still playing smaller venues, it’s more intimate so you are quite up close and personal with a lot of the fans. I think with a lot of bigger acts, you’re quite detached from it because you go to the venue and you’re out the back door. At this stage, you have to make yourself approachable to the fans.
After you recent travels, do you have a picture in your mind as to what a typical PARRALOX fan might be like?
Amii: I still think it’s very early days and I think for us now, it’s reaching a younger crowd.
John: Right now, we’ve captured the hearts of people that are my age, the people that have grown up in the 80’s and love the electronic music. So it’s quite easy for us to satisfy people in that age bracket. They’re certainly a large percentage of our fans at the moment. So now we’re trying to target a newer audience. Also, we’ve got a gay following as well and our music fits in with the scene really well. They are so passionate about it, if we could clone our gay fans a million times, we could retire tomorrow!
Amii: Yeah, exactly! I guess as a vocalist, it’s really easy to hear who I’m inspired by and I think getting those kind of MADONNA and KYLIE comparisons, you can’t help but fall into that scene. I think they do appreciate it on a whole new level as well. They are an amazing fanbase to win over because they’re very loyal and they’ll never leave your side. They also buy everything… they have to own CDs, they have to own artwork, everything you release. If you can win over that fanbase, it’s a very good thing.
John: We just headlined a Gay Pride this year and that was the Melbourne equivalent of ‘Mardi Gras’. We went down a treat there. Now we’ve finished our European tour, in June we’re doing two live shows at gay venues in Sydney so we’re slowly getting the ball rolling.
Amii: Also I think it’ll just start to happen, I think that’s where we’ll really start.
Now the audience thing is very interesting because you’re playing Infest in the summer and it is known for primarily being an alternative electronic music festival. How do you think PARRALOX fit into the scheme of things and could you possibly now attract the European Goth audience who have found MARSHEAUX so appealing?
John: That’s a yes and no answer because I think our music appeals to both the electronic pop purists and the electro-gothic community as well. Because there’s a combination of the production style and the visual image we present as a band, it’s easy to see how it might appeal to an electro-goth.
It’s not like we’re trying to aim for the gothic market. As a matter of fact, we’re not trying to aim for any market. We’re basically producing music for ourselves. We have a clear goal in our mind as to how we want to sound. We have a manifesto for the band in terms of how we want to sound and how we want to appear. If we happen to appeal to electro-goths, that’s fantastic and if we happen to appeal to a gay or straight audience or whatever, that’s fantastic too! The fact that we are embraced by any of these markets is fantastic. We want people to hear our music. Whoever can appreciate our music, that’s where we’ll play. We’d hate to pigeonhole ourselves, even as an Australian band. There’s no point in making music, good or band if no-one is going to hear it. We’re not going to play in a Country and Western bar because that’s not appropriate.
Amii: The way I see it from coming into the project a bit later, I feel if not intentionally, PARRALOX is moving away from the pure electro audience. It’s just naturally starting to happen.
I think until recently in the UK at least, the electronic scene has been considered a Goth thing. But a friend of mine on the scene told me goths secretly like pop music!!
John: I know that in my heart, so I know goths will like PARRALOX. I think the artwork for ‘State Of Decay’ was probably more gothic than even the first album so it’s ironic that you should say that. The first album ‘Electricity’ had the least gothic imagery you could imagine but I intentionally wanted ‘State Of Decay’ to be a bit of a darker album, not a gothic album as I wanted the songs to be viewed in a more serious light, not so much considered as ripping off the sounds on ‘Dare’, or ULTRAVOX or GARY NUMAN. That was quite an easy thing to do, I thought we need to start exploring different territory and create our own unique sound which I guess is a challenge for any band. Especially given where we started which was quite derivative.
You’re known for being prolific and are already recording new songs. Will these be for the new album and how it is taking shape? Any new directions?
John: We’re going to go further with the new album ‘Metropolis’. We both together are very prolific, we could probably release three albums a year but it’s more about quality control. I think ‘Metropolis’ is an extension of ‘State Of Decay’, it’s an evolution for the band. Quite a few of the songs, they could almost be gay pop anthems.
They wouldn’t be out of place on MADONNA’s ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’, Stuart Price! And at the same token, we’ve got some songs that are pure electronic pop like they could have come from ‘Dare’ or ‘The Luxury Gap’ or ‘You And Me Both’. Again, it’s a matter of the band moving forward. It’s not that I have a formula for the band but if there is one I could put it around, it would simply be for each album to have a ballad. Amii can pull it off so well.
Some of the songs are electronic dance, but not too much. As an electronic band, you can’t really go for a contemporary dance sound without it sounding dated 2 or 3 years later! For us it’s all about the songs. Our first single off ‘Metropolis’ is called ‘Supermagic’ and that will be remixed by Assemblage 23.
The second one is called ‘I Sing The Body Electric’ which is my all-time favourite PARRALOX song. Without sounding too big headed, it’s the track I’m proudest of so far. It’s a good combination of a dance track with an electronic track… it’s a pop electronic dance record! It’s like if MADONNA worked with DEPECHE MODE. The music comes from the heart so it ends up sounding like them as they’re the people we love. MESH will be remixing ‘I Sing The Body Electric’.
Amii: ‘Supermagic’ is quite a fun song and I really enjoy singing it. A little bit more light hearted with that 6/8 glam beat! If GOLDFRAPP did ‘Supernature’ again, that track wouldn’t be out of place.
John: Amii and I have been able to collaborate more together. It’s great for me as a producer and songwriter for the band so I’m not carrying all the weight on my shoulders.
Will it be with lyrics and stuff?
Amii: Not so much with lyrics, but the visual aspect. I have good strong ideas. Honestly most of the time when we come up with ideas, we actually like each other’s ideas, bar a couple of things every now and then.
John: Amii for me is a good filter because I will have ten amazing ideas and want to do the all at once! I value Amii’s opinion, Amii will be the one who brings me back down to earth. Fortunately for me, we think the same way because if we didn’t, it would be big trouble for the band. Amii’s come up with the concept for our the video clip for ‘Supermagic’.
The deal with Conzoom and the championing of PARRALOX by a variety of blogs worldwide has opened doors and enabled you to play live in Europe.
John: I cannot speak highly enough of Ingo from Conzoom and also Sebastian from Wonderland Records. It’s now gone from John Von Ahlen being on his computer dealing with people in Europe, doing all this networking and stuff to now, having proper representation and a formal record label in Germany doing all that for us. Ingo knows all the right people. Me and Amii have been signed to major labels in the past so we are aware of the positive and negative aspects of that. But right now it’s perfect for us to be signed to a label like Conzoom because Ingo can get our music to the radio stations, to the magazines…
Yes, Ingo really does do promotion properly doesn’t he?
John: Ingo does brilliant promotion so every second week, we are getting new reviews on the singles and the albums. There’s a German radio series called ‘Schrei Der Angst’ which has just released a compilation CD with a remixed version of ‘Time’ on it. So Ingo is managing to place us and getting us heard by the right people, organising all these amazing remixes. Ingo forwarded me some emails from people who he has approached for remixes – I nearly fell off my chair. Stay tuned for more on that.
Things are opening up in Sweden?
John: The show in Gothenburg, we stayed with Sebastian at Wonderland Records for three days and it was amazing just to get know him, we got along like a house on fire.
Amii and I fell over when we walked into his office, the walls are lined with signed albums from PET SHOP BOYS, MADONNA, THE CURE, ERASURE, BJORK, DEPECHE MODE and we stayed in the guest room under all these framed photos of MADONNA and DEPECHE MODE thinking “this is genius”! Sebastian would like me to remix every artist on the Wonderland label, so far I’ve done four of them!
Can I do a shameless plug for MONOSTRIP? I’ve already remixed their single called ‘Like A Drug’ , they have a song coming out called ‘Miami’ and I tell you what, I’ve listened to it on repeat. I urge people to try and listen to MONOSTRIP ‘Miami’ because that song could be a club smash. I thought it’s such genius, why couldn’t we have done a track like that?
Amii: I think so too. It’s got a real killer chorus!
Notable cult figures on the scene such as Ian Burden, Ade Fenton and Robert Marlow have been contributing to the PARRALOX brand of late. Do you have a wish list of anyone else you’d like to work with in the future?
John: The Ade Fenton remix was through my GARY NUMAN contact in Australia Michael Butler who is friends with Steve Malins, his manager and his dad Tony. I’m really of mixed opinion about working directly with my musical heroes. They say you should never meet your idols, but if it’s going to further the Parralox name then I wouldn’t say no if the opportunity arose, of course! But seeing as you asked, I guess having a Parralox track produced by Martyn Ware, Giorgio Moroder, Vince Clarke or RedOne would be pretty awesome!
What next for PARRALOX? Where might you like to play next?
John: We can’t afford to spend too much time on the road at the moment. I don’t want there to be a 2 to 3 year gap for albums, we need to have one album per year to keep the interest going for the band. So the rough plan for 2011 is to go to the USA and Canada, maybe Asia.
Amii: Definitely, the little bit of exposure we’ve had there is kind of a good sign that they’re liking our sound. And again, not comparing it but I do think having that MADONNA style vocal and stuff like that for the American audience is in our favour.
Do you think being based in Melbourne is a disadvantage at the moment?
John: Absolutely not!
Amii: I don’t think so either, because in this day and age with the internet, you can record something and have it all around the world the next hour! If you’re sending it to the right people and it’s exposed, I think it doesn’t matter where you are in the world these days. That’s the beauty of the internet, you can be anywhere and make contact with people. A lot of our fans have actually discovered us, they’ve gone on the internet and found PARRALOX themselves. I think that’s a huge thing as you get passionate people because they haven’t had it thrown in their face. They went on line and went “WOW”! People along the way have told us they heard it and loved it. It’s nice to think we’ve got that kind of fanbase.
John: I think the only disadvantage would be that fact that we have to spend 20 hours on a plane to get anywhere! But it’s not like we play a live show every weekend so if we come overseas twice a year, that’s no problem. It might be an advantage because when a band comes from another country, it can be seen as exotic.
When PARRALOX arrived on the scene in 2008, electro became quite female dominated but the boys seem to be making a return with a vengeance in 2010. Have you had a chance to hear VILLA NAH, HURTS, MIRRORS and THE SOUND OF ARROWS at all?
John: I’ve heard various tracks from all of them and they sound pretty amazing. It’s good to know we aren’t alone! Going back to your question though – I think it’s a natural evolution… music and fashion are cyclical. It’s funny you mention female dominance because on our new album ‘Metropolis’, I’ll be featuring vocally much more than on the first two albums because I can detach myself from being a producer.
Being a producer, songwriter and performer are three separate things and you have to be careful to put yourself in the seat of being a performer and be professional enough to realise where it fits, where it works and where it doesn’t. I’ve sung certain songs, listened to them and realised that vocally, it’s not fit for me to be singing it. But I realise now as a backing vocalist how voices sound really fantastic together.
Amii: You have to remove yourself from it almost.
John: It’s a continuing evolution. Like for Infest, we’ll be modifying the stage performance so Amii will be taking more of a musical role as well.
So ‘girl on synth’ for you Amii?
Amii: Yes! We want to have a bit more creative input and interaction on stage.
John: So while I’m singing, Amii will be doing vocoder and keys.
That’s great because as a HUMAN LEAGUE fan when I was younger, I just wished Susanne and Joanne would just get behind a keyboard just for the hell of it, even as an image thing!
John: It’s surprising after all those years… they’ve had 20 years to learn how to play keys!
Amii: But I agree, I think it looks good if as a vocalist, I’m in there doing a few other things.
It was Elly Jackson from LA ROUX who said “Girls look wicked playing synths!”
Where do you see electronic pop music heading in the new decade?
Amii: I think especially what PARRALOX do, we’re going back to the 80’s formula where it’s timeless. Good pop songs because that’s the thing! The lyrics are amazing, the structure, just everything about the song you can appreciate. And I’m just hoping that sort of starts to happen with a few other artists.
John: That’s a thing that a lot of people forget, above and beyond all the hype created in the music industry. Artists like LADY GAGA are genius, obviously it’s not just about the music, it’s about the image and the fashion she portrays but it’s also about creating good songs.
Amii: I just think that a lot of pop at the moment is quite disposable. In 10 years time, you’re not going to listen to it and go “WOW”! So I think that’s slowly starting to happen, I think there will be a new wave of more independent electro bands coming through. It would seem that from our travels meeting a lot of other people who are doing the same thing. And I’m hoping that a little movement will start, a going to the next chapter of electropop which will be substance again but with everyone’s own take on that influence by the 80’s artists! Technology is getting a lot better, you listen to the new sounds and they’re a lot fatter, things are a lot cleaner than the 80s.
John: I think electronic pop is music for the future. People not be aware of this, but in the book ‘Story of A Band Called The Human League’, Martin Rushent in 1981 predicted that “one day all music will be made electronically” which was a bold and crazy statement to make at the time. And that prediction has actually happened… music is now created entirely on laptops and computers in the studios. So we’re already here, electronic pop music is here. Even if you listen to LADY GAGA, her music is electronic pop. Some of her songs have no real instruments on there.
For PARRALOX, it’s great for us to be here now. Because artists like that have opened up people’s ears to electronic pop music without them even realising. There are already artists like GOLDFRAPP who are doing what we hope to be doing which is creating high quality, well written, well produced songs. Like I said, music is cyclical. For the kids, it’s a new sound for them but it’s one we grew up with. The future for electronic pop music is very healthy but it’s up to the bands to keep championing the cause and hold the torch high!
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to PARRALOX
Text by Steve Gray
Interview by Chi Ming Lai
5th June 2010