“Living in a dream since 1983”, MAISON VAGUE’s ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was one of the surprise albums of 2011 and possibly the best wholly independent release of that year.
Paying homage to Synth Britannia and in particular, Gary Numan, it was the work of Clark Stiefel, an Essen domiciled American musician based in a modern day Neudeutsche Schule. A classically trained virtuoso who studied piano and electronic music at a conservatoire, it was there that where he got to grips with both the Moog and Buchla modular systems that lit his passion.
With the eccentric demeanour of Hungarian 19th Century composer Franz Liszt, Stiefel added some quality musicianship and a wry sense of humour to the quirkily authentic proceedings. ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was very much an album with air synth potential. The title track with its arching battlecry was initially a reaction to a YouTube video entitled ‘Synthpop Is Dead’. Totally disagreeing with its creator, Clark responded but instead of protesting via the comments section, he composed a song in a classic synthpop style.
Like the result of coitus between DEVO and PLACEBO, the opening Sci-Fi synth salvo and the line “Everyone’s entitled to opinion…you have yours and well, I have mine” was wryly countered with a retort of “And though it seems that our opinions differ… you’ll agree in time!” The blistering solo using an Oberheim OBXa is a total delight: “The OBXa has more of a rock’n’roll tone to it. I like that!” Stiefel told The Electricity Club.
Another familiar, stirring sound came courtesy of the Arturia Virtual Minimoog and its meaty octave bass drive. “One of the most brilliant pieces of software ever” added Stiefel. That particular VST dominated many of the album’s chunky riff laden tracks such as the immediately enjoyable ‘Pixelated Lover’. The combination of OBXa and Moog colours effectively revived The Gary Numan Principle and on the bouncily brilliant ‘Give Them Away’, ‘Observer’ from ‘The Pleasure Principle’ was developed into a far more complete composition. It also climaxed with a simulated violin solo that recalled ULTRAVOX’s Billy Currie who incidentally played on that same album.
Its more steadfast cousin ‘Buried In Sandstone’ was also decidedly Numan-esque in a ‘Conversation’ style while ‘My Situation’ took its inspiration from THE HUMAN LEAGUE but presented itself with a more symphonic overlay. Voiced by Stiefel’s snarling mid-Atlantic tone, it was as if PLACEBO had come from industrialised Sheffield. Slightly punkier, ‘We’re Not Human’ was also cut from a similar cloth. The album however was not all Numanoid pastiche.
Changing the rhythm stance slightly, the superb reggae inflected electro of ‘Tunnel Vision’ featured a terrific chorus high which was punctuated by lovely string layers and some fluid bass guitar. Meanwhile, ‘Colored Glasses’ journeyed into more cerebral depths via some terrific classical interludes in the muse of Beethoven but using multi-tracked Roland Jupiter 4s.
Affirming the multi-dimensional aspirations of the album, the hilarious and appropriately titled ‘No Show’ was a fine example of Bette Midler gone electro or even ‘Bugsy Malone’ with lasers instead of splurge guns… inspired by death of Michael Jackson, its sense of irony was an amusing musical diversion and wholly fitting in the context of MAISON VAGUE.
But to bookend ‘Synthpop’s Alive’, album closer ‘Living On Ice Cream’ returned to the former Gary Webb and looked back at his TUBEWAY ARMY days to ape ‘Replicas’ outtake ‘We Have A Technical’. As icy and surreal as the title, ‘Living On Ice Cream’ was a terrific closer that was both exhilarating and fun. As a whole, ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ combined midlife paranoia with fish-out-of-water eccentricity but a tongue-in-cheek slyness allowed the listener not to take it all too seriously…
The future could be seen though ‘Colored Glasses’ but for the follow-up, there may be some other plans as Stiefel has surmised: “I definitely feel musically I’m heading in a more minimal and transparent direction. This is an extreme example but if you could imagine Leonard Cohen playing synths. When one thinks of singer/songwriters, the first thing that comes to people’s heads is a guitar. You don’t really think of a singer/songwriter with a synth. But if the song is strong enough, then maybe you could just have a minimal accompaniment – perhaps only a Jupiter 4 and TR 606 drum machine? It’s only a dream at this point but this is definitely brewing in the back of my head.”
MAISON VAGUE ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ uses the following synthesizers and drum machines: Oberheim OBXa, Roland Jupiter 4, Roland Promars CompuPhonic (MRS 2), Roland MKS 50, Roland JP8000, Roland XP60, Arturia MinimoogV, Digidesign Xpand, Roland CR8000 CompuRhythm, Roland TR606 Drumatix, Native Instruments Battery and Submersible Kitcore Deluxe.
It was a year which saw classic and new stand side-by-side as comrades in arms for the synthesizer.
In possibly the event of the year, April’s ‘Back To The Phuture - Tomorrow Is Today’ at London’s Troxy saw godfathers GARY NUMAN and JOHN FOXX supported by the best new UK synthpop act for many years, MIRRORS.
The Brighton quartet reappeared in the summer over on the South Bank when the Vintage Festival Electronic Phuture Revue gave us a celebration of synthpop cool with performances by ONETWO, RECOIL, THOMAS DOLBY and HEAVEN 17. Speaking of the latter, they premiered ‘The Luxury Gap’ at The Roundhouse in 3D sound no less while their production alter-ego BEF presented ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction Live’.
Meanwhile, Mute Records celebrated their influential legacy with a weekender also at London’s Roundhouse featuring ERASURE, YAZOO and THE ASSEMBLY in the same set, plus acts such as RECOIL, NITZER EBB and LAIBACH.
With an electro documentary weekend before Easter on the Sky Arts TV channel featuring GARY NUMAN, DURAN DURAN, JEAN MICHEL JARRE, NEW ORDER and the late ROBERT MOOG, electronic music’s cultural legacy was being recognised the world over.
Indeed, GARY NUMAN’s Inspiration Award from Mojo magazine finally acknowledged those trailblazing Synth Britannia years. There were complaints by one well-known blog however about wrinkly electropop but without these pioneers who changed music, where would we be today?
As KRAFTWERK’s Ralf Hütter said: “From all over the world comes inspiration. We have been very lucky, because the music we envisioned, the ideas we had of The Man Machine and electro music, have become reality and technology has developed in our direction and electro is everywhere”.
Shouldn’t the imperial phase of Synth Britannia and its earlier Germanic influence therefore be celebrated in the way that senior blues musicians have been revered within the world of rock ‘n’ roll?
Missing from the Mute evening’s proceedings as a collective were DEPECHE MODE who gave the world a U2 cover and a second instalment of their remix collection as part of their year’s work.
One rework that provoked enormous debate was Alan Wilder’s improved rework of 2009’s ‘In Chains’ which added speculation as to whether he would be rejoining the band. Certainly, it would induce some much needed creative tension that has mostly been missing from DEPECHE MODE since the start of the noughties.
But one act truly excelling in the darker side of electronic based music was IAMX who continued to conquer Europe while remaining largely ignored in the UK. Martin Gore could seriously learn from Chris Corner about how to make melodic, accessible music that doesn’t compromise artistically and retains a gritty edge. Meanwhile, Gore rekindled a working relationship with Vince Clarke on a techno project under the banner of VCMG.
Monday 21st March was an interesting day as it saw the release of albums by DURAN DURAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JOHN FOXX. As TEC interviewee Mr Normall amusingly recalled in his Facebook status “this is 2011, not 1981”!
At least two of those albums were the best and most immediate bodies of work from those artists for many years. The bar has certainly been raised for acts such as ULTRAVOX and VISAGE who both announced forthcoming new albums.
BLANCMANGE made their welcome return with Neil Arthur’s sense of humour as sharp as ever but sadly, he was unable to be joined for the live shows by his bandmate Stephen Luscombe due to illness. One hopes Stephen is making a good recovery.
MIRRORS showed their promise and delivered the superbly seamless long player ‘Lights & Offerings’. While the band themselves admitted it may have been a touch derivative, it was enjoyed by a small but loyal fanbase who embraced their whole intelligent pop noir aesthetic.
However, just as they were about to make a breakthrough, a second high profile tour supporting OMD in Germany was cancelled along with an appearance at Bestival. Then founder member Ally Young announced he was leaving the group.
The situation has been likened by some observers to when Vince Clarke left DEPECHE MODE. Of course, the end result of that was both parties mutated into highly successful acts and The Electricity Club is hopeful something similar may occur here. Certainly an excellent new darker tune called ‘Dust’ from the remaining trio indicates MIRRORS are not finished yet! The similarly smartly attired HURTS continued their domination of Europe and while not as adored in the UK, they still did the business touring wise with sell-out shows at Somerset House and Brixton Academy with KYLIE MINOGUE making a surprise guest appearance at the latter.
Of the ladies, BETH DITTO went superbly electronic with her debut solo EP while CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN went jazz for the soundtrack of ‘LA Noire’, but not before celebrating the electronic part of her career with a fine retrospective Combined and a fantastic show at The Scala which saw a three quarters reunion of PROPAGANDA plus special guests ANDY BELL and HEAVEN 17.
Another acclaimed German chanteuse BILLE RAY MARTIN returned with her new project THE OPIATES and an album ‘Hollywood Under The Knife’ while LADYTRON released a definitive Best Of ’00-10′ and a new album ‘Gravity The Seducer’. The latter was a glorious, lush masterpiece of aural subtlety which was not universally embraced by their fanbase but is likely to become a cult favourite in the future.
Meanwhile, the spectre of FEVER RAYs Karin Drejer-Andersson lurked, both musically and politically, within several darker female fronted combos such as AUSTRA, THE HORN THE HUNT and GAZELLE TWIN.
The brooding unsettlement of this Hauntronica (or witch house as it was sometimes referred) won favour with several of The Electricity Club’s team while JOHN FOXX named GAZELLE TWIN’s ‘The Entire City’ as his album of the year. However, this fairly uncompromising strain of electro wasn’t for everyone although it was definitely more preferable to dubstep, the trendy new dance form that even the usually club friendly Chris Lowe of PET SHOP BOYS was having trouble embracing!
But Nordic influences weren’t just about tonal gloom and witchery. Greek maidens MARSHEAUX adopted some FEVER RAY styled percussive moods on their only song of the year ‘Can You Stop Me?’ but remained synthpop while American duo NIGHTLIFE borrowed SALLY SHAPIRO’s sweeter template.
Over at The Finland Station, producer JORI HULKKONEN’s PROCESSORY project delivered an 18 track electronic Sci-Fi concept album entitled ‘Change Is Gradual’. TIGER BABY from Denmark returned with the dreamy single ‘Landscapes’ while from Sweden, both THE GIRL & THE ROBOT and EMMON delivered enjoyable new material. There was also the mysteriously kooky IAMAMIWHOAMI but best of all from the region were THE SOUND OF ARROWS with the cinematic crystalline pop of their debut album ‘Voyage’.
At the pure pop end of the spectrum, LADY GAGA plotted her next move into world domination with new album ‘Born This Way’. With religious lyrical imagery were very much in evidence throughout, this was her ‘Like A Prayer’ with a Eurocentric sound being very much the dominant factor in the music. With her ear firmly on the inventive UK music scene, GOLDFRAPP, HURTS and MIRRORS were commissioned to deliver remixes of ‘Judas’.
LITTLE BOOTS returned with a bouncy house number called ‘Shake’ while SUNDAY GIRL had her album delayed again and didn’t appear to know whether she wanted to be a singer or a fashion designer. Her pop thunder has now potentially been stolen by the similar raspy timbres of LANA DEL REY whose pair of remixes by NIKONN became favourites with many electro enthusiasts.
Embracing couture but with her head fully focussed on the music, QUEEN OF HEARTS brought some intelligent sparkle to electropop. With mentions in The Guardian and The Times, her superb EP ‘The Arrival’ realised the potential that was apparent in her earlier girl group days.
Several acts previously introduced by The Electricity Club in 2010 gained prestigious supports slots as a sign of their steady progress. SHH were billed with former BLACK BOX RECORDER vocalist SARAH NIXEY, THE VANITY CLAUSE opened for a solo ANDY BELL performance while Electro Weimar songstress KATJA VON KASSEL did the same at two of ERASURE’s shows in Germany. VILLA NAH were due to play the biggest gig of their career with DURAN DURAN but Simon Le Bon’s illness, which also caused the postponement of the entire UK tour in May, unfortunately put paid to that.
VILE ELECTRODES headlined The Electricity Club’s first live event TEC001 and combined the kitchen sink drama of THE SMITHS and the nonchalance of CLIENT with lashings of analogue synths and fetish rubberwear.
So it could be said that “Synthpop’s Alive” and this was exemplified by Essen based American act MAISON VAGUE who gave the world probably the best wholly independent release of the year.
Clark Stiefel’s wonderful cross of GARY NUMAN and DEVO was the work of a man brought up in the avant-classical world with hands-on experience of vintage Moog and Buchla modulars. Using the concept of “living in a dream since 1983”, despite the vintage influences, it was electronic music as imagined by the eccentricity of Oscar Wilde crossed with the thoughtful demeanour of late classical composer Franz Liszt.
Over the year, American based electronic acts were starting to come to the fore with XENO & OAKLANDER, SOFT METALS, TARA BUSCH, HIGH PLACES and THE MYSTIC UNDERGROUND all gaining notable acclaim.
A question that has to be asked though is whether there is too much synth based music at the moment? Interestingly, THOMAS DOLBY and SARAH NIXEY moved away from the electronic world and released new albums that had a more personal, organic quality. Some observers were complaining about “synthpop by numbers” and “Synth Britannia throwbacks”, but as OMD’s Andy McCluskey once said on that very programme, if there was a magic button for a hit single, he’d have pressed it more times than anyone else.
While improvements in technology have made it much easier for the public at large to make music and interesting noises, not everyone has the ability to write proper songs. Not only that but the iPod/notebook generation have been listening to compressed mp3s on tinny speakers for such a long time now that they have no grasp of dynamics.
This has hampered many new acts who have taken to doing everything themselves and as a result, produced some average pieces of work. There is nothing like a second opinion and creative tension to help a new piece of music along. And it is this willingness to understand the cores of songwriting, production and arrangement that ultimately separates the good from the bad, and ultimately the outstanding from the good.
THE ELECTRICTY CLUB Contributor Listings of 2011
Best album: MUERAN HUMANOS Mueran Humanos
Best Song: VELVET CONDOM Rouge City
Best Gig: KRAFTWERK at Die Alte Kongresshalle, Munich
Best Video: LADYTRON Mirage
Most Promising New Act: MUERAN HUMANOS
Best album: GARY NUMAN Dead Son Rising
Best Song: TENEK What Do You Want?
Best Gig: Back To The Phuture – Tomorrow Is Today at The Troxy, London
Best Video: DURAN DURAN Girl Panic!
Most Promising New Act: QUEEN OF HEARTS
CHI MING LAI
Best album: MIRRORS Lights & Offerings
Best Song: VILE ELECTRODES My Sanctuary
Best Gig: Back To The Phuture -Tomorrow Is Today at The Troxy, London
Best Video: TIGER BABY Landscapes
Most Promising New Act: QUEEN OF HEARTS
Best Album: SANDWELL DISTRICT Feed Forward
Best Song: JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Summerland
Best Gig: KRAFTWERK at Die Alte Kongresshalle, Munich
Best Video: LADYTRON Mirage
Most Promising New Act: MUERAN HUMANOS
Best album: MIRRORS Lights & Offerings
Best Song: JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Shatterproof
Best Gig: HEAVEN17/BEF Weekender at The Roundhouse
Best Video: QUEEN OF HEARTS Shoot The Bullet
Most Promising New Act: QUEEN OF HEARTS
Best album: AUSTRA Feel It Break
Best song: MIRRORS Into The Heart (Greek Girls Are Not Easy extended remix)
Best gig: AUSTRA at Stockholm Debaser Medis
Best video: EMMON Ghost Dance
Most promising new act: LOUISE (ex-THERMOSTATIC)
Living In A Dream Since 1983, MAISON VAGUE’s ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was one of the surprise albums of 2011 and is possibly the best wholly independent release of the year.
It is the creation of Clark Stiefel, a German domiciled American with a love for all things ‘Synth Britannia’.
A classically trained virtuoso who studied piano and electronic music at a conservatoire, his working knowledge of vintage synthesizers and modern technology has affectionately revived The GARY NUMAN Principle.
One of the few active musicians to have handled both the original Moog and Buchla modular synthesizers, he adds musicianship and a wry sense of humour to the quirkily authentic proceedings. The title track with its battlecry of ‘Synthpop’s Alive’! could be the result of an unlikely sexual liaison between DEVO and PLACEBO. Unbelievably catchy, its statement of intent is so profound that if you are a sceptic, you really will become a believer.
Chunky riff laden tracks such as ‘Pixelated Lover’, ‘My Situation’ and ‘Give Them Away’ allow the listener to have fun with their air synths and smile with a wonderful air of irony. Album closer ‘Living On Ice Cream’ apes ‘Replicas’ outtake ‘We Have A Technical’ but if that doesn’t appeal, there’s always the appropriately titled ‘No Show’ which is a fine example of BETTE MIDLER gone electro and the reggae inflected ‘Tunnel Vision’.
Meanwhile, ‘Colored Glasses’ explores more cerebral depths via some terrific classical interludes as befitting Clark Stiefel’s eccentric FRANZ LISZT demeanor. In a genre where pretension can often rear its head in an over grandiose fashion, MAISON VAGUE are a bright light in modern synthpop.
The Electricity Club challenged Clark Stiefel to a game of Vintage Synth Trumps over Dim Sum and a few glasses of Altbier on a lovely evening in downtown Düsseldorf…
First card? It’s the Roland Jupiter 4
The Roland Jupiter 4, my favourite synth. But that’s a very difficult thing to say…
What inspired you to get one?
It was an accident. Around 2002, I purchased a TR606 drum machine on eBay and after I made the deal, the guy I was buying it from said he had other things for sale, one of them being a Jupiter 4.
I had never played one before but I knew it from GARY NUMAN as I’m a big fan. There’s lots on the ‘Telekon’ and ‘Dance’ albums.
I was always fascinated by that sound. There’s something so distinct about that sound. Up until then, it was not a synth I pursued. But the Jupiter 4, in a strange way, came to me. So I bought it on instinct and it was like fate. For the last nine years, it’s been a major part of my life.
Which songs have you used it for on the ‘Synthpop’s Alive’album?
It’s used all over but most notably on Colored Glasses. It’s pretty much 90% multi-tracked Jupiter 4. It’s best at making electronic sounds. You can literally feel the electrons. It’s got such a living, vibrant sound. It’s also very good at odd, other worldly sounds. I find it has an almost organic quality to it. On ‘Colored Glasses’, I’m playing it almost like I would a piano, in a Beethovien style, like an acoustic instrument. I plan to experiment more with the arpegiator and the CV trigger-in on the Jupiter 4 on the next album. One of the things I actually like about my Jupiter is that it has no MIDI or CV GATE interface, so basically, I have to play it.
Why do you think the Jupiter 4 isn’t as well renowned as the Jupiter 8?
I think one of the reasons is the styling and aesthetic. I’ve noticed people talking on the internet about the home organ styling of the Jupiter 4. Personally I really like it. I also have a Roland Promars which is like a monophonic version of the Jupiter. The sound is almost identical. They have the same styling: the same coloured buttons and everything. I love it. Very vintage. I guess people weren’t impressed by it at the time and with competition like the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBXa, it didn’t stand a chance. It had only one programmable oscillator per voice and limited four-voice polyphony. Those would be some of the reasons.
The next card is coincidentally, the Jupiter 8! Have you got one?
No. For one thing, they’re too expensive now. You’d be lucky to find one for $8000. The Jupiter 8 is a legend. When I think of it, I think that’s a synth that I don’t have and probably never will! *laughs*
I’ve played one, though. It’s brilliant. No question about it. But it’s not a synth that I covet.
You know, I don’t think GARY NUMAN ever had one…
There you go, maybe that explains it. I have other synths that I think are very good and I’m happy with them. I just don’t have a relationship with the Jupiter 8. But still, it’s an amazing instrument.
The next card is a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10. Legend has it that GARY NUMAN bought one but never used it. JAPAN’s Richard Barbieri used one live though.
That’s funny about GARY NUMAN because I have this guilt complex; I own a Prophet 10 which I’m very happy to have but the problem is, it’s so incredibly huge! I live in Germany now but I’m originally from the United States where I had quite a big synth collection. One-by-one, I’ve been bringing them over (it’s much easier that way, especially getting them through customs).
The Prophet 10 is the one synth that has not yet made it because the damn thing weighs 70 kilos! I like to joke that the Prophet 10’s flight case is going to be my coffin someday! *laughs*
I bought it in 1996 and have been intending to bring it over to Germany ever since but it’s 2011 and it’s still not here! But I will get it here!!
The Prophet 10 is basically two Prophet 5s on a double keyboard. Now I can see the point that you could get two separate Prophet sounds when you need them but it’s packing it all into a small space. Isn’t it likely to be more unreliable or the sound quality is lower, like an old tape-to-tape cassette machine?
Good question. I would say in theory that’s not true… but in practice, it’s absolutely true which is the reason why I have a Prophet 5! If I need a Prophet sound, I use my Prophet 5. I won’t give up on the Prophet 10 though because it is such a monster, so legendary.
Is this where your classical thing comes in; that its a bit pompous and slightly over-the-top? *laughs*
I think it is. It’s the Quasimodo, the mad organist in me. You know, I’m a keyboard player: I like to play with both hands so I am happiest when I can use all ten fingers. And with the Prophet 10 having ten voices all ten fingers can be occupied, just like playing an organ. On the Prophet 5 I’m constantly running out of voices!
You said that the Jupiter 4 was your favourite synth, but some would argue that the Prophet 5 possibly was the greatest polysynth of its time. Would you agree with that?
Absolutely, without question. Even in this era, I still think its a fantastic instrument. I didn’t use it though on ‘Synthpop’s Alive’. The Oberheim OBXa unintentionally stole the show. In some ways they’re very similar instruments, though the Prophet 5 is a lot more capable. Still, they can cover similar ground… but given the sort of ground that need to be covered on the album, the OBXa got the nod.
GARY NUMAN used the OBXa as his main synth on ‘Warriors’
I didn’t know that. That’s good to know. Maybe it was subconscious?
Is the OBXa the one you use for the blistering solo on ‘Synthpop’s Alive’? Is it better for soloing than perhaps the Jupiter 4?
Yes, you can solo on the Jupiter 4. It has a mono mode to engage all four VCOs and it sounds pretty good. But it’s not as aggressive as the OBXa.
The OBXa has more of a rock ‘n’ roll tone to it. I like that!
That’s funny because I always heard that the OBXa is a very American instrument and much favoured by rock bands whereas the Rolands and to a lesser extent, the Prophets weren’t. Any explanation for that?
There’s no question that the Roland and the Prophet are more sophisticated, finer instruments. The OBXa has an earthy, bluesy quality to it. It’s limited compared to a Prophet 5 but its very straightforward.
So you would try to construct atmospheres with the OBXa?
It’s not what I would reach for although it certainly can be done. In fact I recently pushed the limits of my OBXa by hooking up a Moog CP251 Control Processor to it just to try out some weird funky things. I was surprised just how weird and funky I could get it to sound. Still, its simplicity is what I like best. It’s a rocker’s synth.
Let’s draw your next trump card; it’s a Korg PS3300. KARL BARTOS used it as part of his live set-up when he was in KRAFTWERK…
All I can say about Korg is: I like Korg. I respect Korg instruments. But for some reason I own very little of their gear!
Is it because Korg were the ones who cracked the budget synth market in the mid 70s and therefore weren’t seen as musical because synths like the Korg 770 and Micro-Preset were so competitively priced that people didnt see them as real instruments in the same way as when Casio opened up the market later on? Saying that though, the Korg PS3300 is pretty expensive!
I would admit to that about Casio but I wouldn’t say that about Korg because they’ve made some really nice instruments like the Mono/Poly and MS20. I’m not put off by Korg for any reason. The MS20 in particular is really great. I would love to have one. But somehow Korgs have never really come my way.
Maybe it’s because you’re American, because Korg was very popular with British synthpop artists?
That could be…
Acts like THE HUMAN LEAGUE, THE NORMAL, OMD and SIMPLE MINDS all started with Korg as their first instruments but then again, GARY NUMAN never used Korg! *laughs*
Really? Then there you go! Another unconscious decision, I guess I’m just not a Korg guy *laughs*
Next card; the ARP Odyssey, as used by ULTRAVOX and KRAFTWERK…
I’ve never played an ARP Odyssey but I have played an ARP 2600. I don’t actually own one but it’s still a special instrument to me because it’s one of the first synthesizers I ever worked on. It was one of the synths I used to learn synthesis. In the music conservatory where I studied, in the beginners’ studio, they had an ARP 2600 and a couple of VCS3s. From these you got to move up – we were not allowed at first in the big studio with the Moog Modular and Buchla! The ARP 2600 is a fantastic beginner’s instrument. It was essentially our text book so I have a special fondness for it as I ‘learned the ropes’ so to speak on that synth.
As a classical musician, how did you find originally the concept of sequencing with a piece of music playing all by itself almost like ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’?
Interesting question. I think there was a certain reservation at first. There was a part of me that wanted to feel this abandonment in sequencing and aleatory music… music that has a life of its own.
But there was also this feeling that sequencers were somehow cheating. I’ve long since gotten over it! *laughs*
Ah! The Minimoog! Another classic which unfortunately I don’t have. It’s so legendary. I do have a Moog Little Phatty though. It’s not a Minimoog by any means but it’s satisfied my cravings for the time being. It’s a brilliant instrument because it’s so deceptively simple. It’s actually got a lot of power behind it. Its simplicity is one of its strong points because you can make sounds immediately.
It’s very accessible and it’s a very practical performing instrument. You can just pack up and play it anywhere. You’re not going to freak out about it being on stage. Granted it’s not cheap but it’s also not the most expensive instrument in the world. The Little Phatty is a synth that I could play on stage and not worry about it. If I had a more expensive Moog Voyager, it imagine it would just stay in the studio and never leave.
So was it the Little Phatty that you used for your NUMAN-esque buzzy bass monophonic sounds?
Actually, I bought the Little Phatty after I recorded the album. But I did want a Moog sound for the ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ title track. So I cheated and used the Arturia Virtual Minimoog — one of the most brilliant pieces of software ever. I’m not a huge fan of softsynths and virtual instruments but I’m thankful for the Arturia Virtual Minimoog because I needed that Moog sound and it delivered.
Any plans for MAISON VAGUE to play live?
There’s a chance, yes. The only hold up at the moment is that I haven’t got a band! It’s just me — and I don’t fancy the idea of cloning myself *laughs*
I’m working on it, though. I love to perform. Recording is a very different art from performing. I would like as much to be live as possible. I’m not a big fan of going out on stage with backing tracks or too much pre-sequenced stuff. A little bit is OK… but to substitute a musician by having a backing track, that I don’t really like so much. So I either need to find more players or simplify and re-arrange.
Where do you think you might take MAISON VAGUE in the future?
I definitely feel musically I’m heading in a more minimal and transparent direction. This is an extreme example, but if you could imagine LEONARD COHEN playing synths. When one thinks of singer/songwriters the first thing that comes to people’s heads is a guitar. You don’t really think of a singer/songwriter with a synth. But if the song is strong enough, then maybe you could just have a minimal accompaniment — perhaps only a Jupiter 4 and TR606 drum machine? It’s only a dream at this point but this is definitely brewing in the back of my head.
Favourite electronic artists at the moment?
One act that I’m really happy about is LA ROUX. For one, I’m happy they exist. I first heard about them on an electronic music website where someone had posted a video of LA ROUX in actually what was a negative context. But what they’re doing is precisely what I would like to on stage as well. Watching their performance, it was electronic music, it was synthpop, but you could see what everyone was doing just like in a traditional band. I like electronic music that’s played like a band and not just a lot of knob twiddling. There’s a certain ridiculousness to all that knob twiddling I feel!
Remember that famous performance of GARY NUMAN doing ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ in 1979? What is so striking about that performance is that it’s a band: you know precisely who is playing what and where it’s coming from. And I think that’s something very important in performing electronic music — even more important than people realise because even 20-30 years on, there’s something about electronic music that still puts people off, you know? There’s inherently something unnatural about it. But when you approach performance like a traditional musician, it just comes to life…
So synthpop really is alive?
‘Synthpop’s Alive’ uses the following synthesizers and drum machines: Oberheim OBXa, Roland Jupiter 4, Roland Promars CompuPhonic (MRS 2), Roland MKS 50, Roland JP8000, Roland XP60, Arturia MinimoogV, Digidesign Xpand, Roland CR8000 CompuRhythm, Roland TR606 Drumatix, Native Instruments Battery and Submersible Kitcore Deluxe
The Electricity Club gives its thanks to Clark Stiefel
So what did The Electricity Club think was hot back in 2011?
It featured a day in March when THE HUMAN LEAGUE, JOHN FOXX and DURAN DURAN all released new albums, while VILE ELECTRODES launched their debut EP. In a year when the synth pioneers were finally recognised for their valuable contribution to popular culture, here is The Electricity Club’s Top 30 songs of 2011 in alphabetical order by artist:
AUSTRA deliver a stark, baroque form of electronica fuelled by sexual tension. Like a gothic opera which successfully blends light and darkness with fragility and power, Katie Stelmanis and friends borrow the tones of classic DEPECHE MODE and cross it with THE KNIFE for this, their most accessibly brilliant synthpop offering from their debut album. The B-side ‘Indentity’ is a worthy listen too.
Available on the CD ‘Feel It Break’ via Domino/Paper Bag Records
A charity single for The Bob Moog Foundation, if you’ve ever wanted to hear that bizarre sonic other worldiness of GOLDFRAPP’s first album Felt Mountain again, it’s right here on ‘Rocket Wife’. With hints of the eerie classic Star Trek theme, this is really does sound like THE CARPENTERS in outer space! Calling occupants of interplanetary craft, across the universe indeed!
Available on the download EP ‘Rocket Wife’ via The Bob Moog Foundation
CURXES are Brighton duo Macaulay Hopwood and Roberta Fidora. Describing themselves as “a decorative set of bones, channelling the ghosts of discothèques past”, their haunting neo-gothique flavour is quite unique as far as Eurocentric electronic pop music is concerned. This is a fine example of a synth friendly SIOUXSIE SIOUX going on a mutant staccato journey via La Nouvelle Vague crossed with DEPECHE MODE.
Available as a download single via iTunes and Amazon
With wonderful riffs and an uplifting chorus, this is delicious electronic pop from the cult Swedish trio of Paulinda Crescentini, Tommy Arell and Carl Hammar. Remixed by Athens synth maidens MARSHEAUX, this has the best of both worlds and could easily be mistaken for Sophie and Marianthi. Paulinda’s Italo Nordic charm gives ‘It’s A Game’ a distinct Mediterranean flavour.
Available on the download EP ‘It’s A Game’ via Graplur Records
BETH DITTO would probably be the Alison Moyet of modern electro if she didn’t prefer the funky punk of her band GOSSIP. ‘Do You Need Someone?’ sees Ms Ditto’s powerful and passionate yearning adding soul to the sparkling electronic dance groove. With production from SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO, KRAFTWERK’s ‘Computer World’ tones towards the song’s coda are a marvellous touch. A future career as an alternative disco diva beckons.
Available on the CD EP ‘Beth Ditto’ via Deconstruction Records/Sony Music
While Dolby’s album return was largely organic with hints of bluegrass and Americana, its token synthpop offering was the wonderful ‘Spice Train’. Over its hypnotic, squelchy sequence and mechanised dance beat, it gets strangely humanised by a Mariachi horn section. With the kitchen sink and a host of exotic influences thrown in via Bollywood and the Middle East, ‘Spice Train’ does exactly what it says on the tin.
Available on the CD ‘A Map Of The Floating City’ via Lost Toy People.
‘All You Need Is Now’ saw DURAN DURAN cyclically return to the funk-led syncopated pop of their first two albums. ‘Being Followed’ is one of its many highlights. A superb sequencer assisted disco number with a tingling metallic edge, touches of THE CURE’s ‘A Forest’ and Nick Rhodes’ vintage string machine capture the tension of post 9/11 paranoia. Simon Le Bon gives it his all and while he is technically one of the most chronic singers of his generation, he is unique AND untouchable… just try doing any DD song at karaoke to find that one out for yourself!!
Available on the CD ‘All You Need Is Now’ via Tape Modern
NIKONN’s brand new album ‘Instamatic’ is suitably Mediterranean so add that instrumentation to the voice of raspy New Yorker LANA DEL REY and the end result is a glorious sun-kissed dancefloor moment. Somehow, you end up feeling much happier after dancing to, what is essentially in its original form, a quite stark, heartfelt minor key ballad.
Originally issued as a free download but currently unavailable.
From her under rated album ‘Make A Scene’ which includes contributions from Richard X and Armand Van Buuren, the appropriately titled Synchronised is a synthpop tune with a distinct YAZOO flavour to it. All highly appropriate as she supported ERASURE during their forests tour this year. This superbly cements her electro kinship which has been apparent since ‘China Heart’ from her ‘Tripping The Light Fantastic’ in 2007 and more recently on ‘Heartbreak Make Me A Dancer’ with FREEMASONS.
Available on the CD ‘Make A Scene’ via Douglas Valentine Limited
The best track on the ‘Interplay’ album is a co-written duet with Mira Aroyo of LADYTRON. ‘Watching A Building On Fire’, with its chattering drum machine and accessible Trans- European melodies, oozes a synthetic smokiness. Aroyo’s counterpoint is almost playfully feline although Foxx’s inherent dystopianism gives it his stamp, making this a second cousin of ‘Burning Car’. The Andy Gray remix is also a worthy acquisition on the second JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS double CD package ‘The Shape of Things’.
Available on the CD ‘Interplay’ via Metamatic Records
JOY DIVISION’s original on ‘Closer’ was one of the most fragile, funereal collages of beauty ever committed to vinyl but Elizabeth Walling has covered this cult classic and made it even more haunting! Replacing the piano motif with eerily chilling synth and holding it together within an echoing sonic cathedral, she pays due respect while adding her own understated operatic stylings. PAUL YOUNG’s interpretation of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ this most certainly ain’t… you should hear her version of ‘Louie Louie’!
Available on the download EP ‘I Am Shell I Am Bone’ via Anti-Ghost Moon Ray Records
Susanne Sulley does her best LITTLE BOOTS impression with this opener to ‘Credo’, the long awaited comeback album from THE HUMAN LEAGUE. Sounding like ‘Crash’ gone right, it is also auto-tuned to the hilt as Da League go all contemporary with this marvellous slice of electronic funk. Let’s hope it’s not another ten years before there’s new material!
‘Clump’ could be the sound of the drums on OMD’s ‘History Of Modern Part 1’ but it’s actually this kooky little number by IAMAMIWHOAMI aka Jonna Lee. A synthetically charged amalgam with vintage sounds and even a toy piano thrown in, this is a bit brighter than some her contemporaries if still delightfully odd and mysterious. It’s musically more BJORK than FEVER RAY although she does share the same management company with the latter.
Available on the download single ‘Clump’ via iTunes and Amazon
IAMX have captured an electro Gothic aesthetic that combines the theatrics of Weimar Cabaret with themes of sex, alienation and dependency in the best tradition of DEPECHE MODE and NINE INCH NAILS. Despite the lyrical and aural fervor, Corner’s songs are strongly melodic with an accessible grandeur. The superb lead single ‘Ghosts Of Utopia’ from new album ‘Volatile Times’ has instant appeal with its exhilarating mechanical drive and electrickery. His scream of “this is psychosis” is wholly believable! Dance in the dark!
Available on the CD ‘Volatile Times’ via Republic of Music/BMG
Flautist textures dominate the more sedate pace of ‘Mirage’ almost as a reaction to the loudness war of previous album ‘Velocifero’. Helen Marnie’s voice beautifully suits the synthetic atmospherics while the widescreen, spacious mix compliments a catchy tune that has hints of SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES. Although confusing some of their fans, given room to explore, ‘Gravity The Seducer’ is that under rated album which will be hailed as a classic in years to come.
Available on the CD ‘Gravity The Seducer’ via Nettwerk Productions
Living in a dream since 1983 and as a homage to ‘The Pleasure Principle’, MAISON VAGUE mainman Clark Stiefel responded musically to a YouTube video entitled ‘Synthpop Is Dead’. The opening salvo is brilliant and the lyric of “Everyone’s entitled to opinion, you have yours and well I have mine” hits home. But it’s the retort of “And though it seems that our opinions differ, you’ll agree in time!” that says it all. This could be the sound of PLACEBO gone electro. This post-Synth Britannia battlecry has heart, soul and humour.
Available on the download album ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ via Amazon
Closing MIRRORS’ outstanding ‘Lights & Offerings’ long player, ‘Secrets’ shifting phat bass riff across two octaves is pure Kling Klang, driven by an intense percussive march. An epic at over ten minutes in length and split into three movements, the ambient interlude of the second section consists of an aural sculpture that plays with the mind. It then suddenly reprises with a piercing military tattoo for its finale with unsettling voices in your head for some added claustrophobic edge.
Available on the CD ‘Lights & Offerings’ via Skint Entertainment
Yes, MOBY has settled into a formula but he does it well. One of the more immediate tracks from the excellent ‘Destroyed’ album, ‘Be The One’ is full of rich layered synth strings with moody chordial sweeps over a motorik beat and textured vocoder. Despite the simplistic robotic couplet “I was the hell that you needed – I was the one when you needed love”, it strangely exudes warmth and emotion.
Available on the CD ‘Destroyed’ via Little Idiot Records
From their second EP Radio, Darin Rajabian and Caroline Myrick met at a party in Michigan and soon developed their interest in dreamy danceable synthpop. With Caroline’s soft vocals attached to Darin’s classic electro disco inspired backing, ‘On The Run’ could be described as ELLIE GOULDING gone right and is free of folkisms. Caroline nicely summed up the escapist feel of the song with: “I want back the soft quiet days of ever, when there was lemonade and sand, and rainy screen doors and sad movies; when the minutes were no one else’s but ours”.
Available on the download EP ‘Radio’ via their website
Anthemic gothic rock is what the former Gary Webb deals in these days but ‘The Fall’ is a lot less heavier and one-dimensional than the offerings on previous album ‘Jagged’. With a fair smattering of synths too, this achieves a much better sonic balance and GARY NUMAN’s most accessible number in years.
Available on the CD ‘Dead Son Rising’ via Mortal Records
This mysterious young royal with her assorted headgear and couture is modern electropop’s own Queen Amidala. From a galaxy far, far away and light years ahead of the poptastic competition, this moody, pulsing cover of indie rockers THE FOALS is transformed by a hypnotism textured with spacious synths to give our Queenie room for some sexy breathiness.
Best known for their seminal electro classic ‘Looking From A Hilltop’ in 1984, the song’s husband and wife vocalists Larry Cassidy and Jenny Ross have sadly since passed away. So it was highly appropriate that for SECTION 25’s recorded return, fronting the former punks would be Larry and Jenny’s daughter Bethany. She does a fine job with this danceable synth led ditty which captures that classic hedonistic Manchester vibe that recalls THE OTHER TWO’s ‘Tasty Fish’ while also placing itself in contemporary club culture.
Available on the download EP ‘Invicta’ via Fac 51 The Hacienda
SOFT METALS are a newish electro duo comprising Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks. Now resident in Los Angeles, they have an accessibly minimal sound with Hall’s pretty vocals being a particular delight and reminiscent of DOT ALLISON’s flirtatious aura. ‘Eyes Closed’ is probably the highlight from their very promising debut album, elements of ORBITAL creeping into the danceable bleep fest.
Available on the CD ‘Soft Metals’ via Captured Tracks
Stefan Storm and Oskar Gullstrand hail from Gavle in Sweden. Both filmic and musical elements are important factors in THE SOUND OF ARROWS. Produced by Richard X and featuring a sweet guest vocal from ACTION BIKER aka Sarah Nyberg Pergament, the choral patches and the symphonic templates are just so reminiscent of OMD. Coupled to some fantastically optimistic ambition, Longest Ever Dream is a panoramic joy!
Featuring violin by Chris Payne from The GARY NUMAN Experience, ‘What Do You Want?’ is the first TENEK track that could be described as possessing a degree of beauty. The Brtish duo’s more rousing anthemic style takes a breather here and although this has more in common with their other ballad track ‘The Art Of Evasion’, the subtlety and strings add a new sonic dimension to the developing TENEK sound.
TIGER BABY are a Copehagen trio led by Pernille Pang with Benjamin Teglbjærg and Nikolaj Tarp Gregersen in synthetic support. They released their debut album ‘Noise Around Me’ in 2007. Stylistically, this has all the unmistakeable melodic sensibility that Scandinavian pop acts seem to naturally possess as pretty arpeggios and wispy vocals combine for some dream laden electro.
Available on the CD ‘Open Windows Open Hills’ via Gunhero records
VILE ELECTRODES are a colourful beat combo who combine analogue synths with fetish fashion. Their sound could be described as THE SMITHS reincarnated as CLIENT but ‘My Sanctuary’, the closing track on their debut EP is a sweeping moody epic that recalls imperial phase ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK. Anais resigned melancholic vocal gives that ice maiden demeanour over glorious symphonic synth strings and deep sombre tones. It’s magnificence embroiled.
They’re the 21st Century equivalent of THE TEARDOP EXPLODES but with no brass. WHITE LIES however are much more bombastic with synths carrying melodies and assorted effects. Driven by a sweeping theme and deep bass thud before leading to a sense of urgency in the verse, a thoroughly anthemic chorus doesn’t appear until halfway to increase tension. This is possibly what TX could have sounded like if Julian Cope hadn’t gone to live under a tortoise shell!
Available on the CD ‘Ritual’ via Fiction/Polydor Records
Chugging arpeggios, clattering primitive drum machines and slightly unorthodox vocals, minimal duo XENO & OAKLANDER give a brilliantly vibrant offering of vintage futurism. ‘The Staircase’ is their most immediate offering yet. Based in Brooklyn, part of their authentic Europeanism comes from Liz Wendelbo’s wispy French / Norwegian charm. Writing with partner Sean McBride since 2004, they successfully supported JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS in October where they were warmly received for their stark electronic sound.
Available on the CD ‘Sets & Lights’ via Wierd Records
Those dark Nordic nights certainly have their effect as this cynical tune from this Finnish duo indicates. Comprising helpfully of two friends Tapio and Matti, ZEBRA & SNAKE fuse vintage electronics with a touch of ambient dexterity as an “artistic form of therapy”. ‘Empty Love Song’ is suitably bittersweet and sounds a bit like MGMT’s ‘Time To Pretend’ after six months in deep freeze! However, despite its lyrical stance, it possesses a grand anthemic quality.
In 2008, PARRALOX declared “We believe in electric love”! Now in 2011, “Synthpop’s alive!” is the MAISON VAGUE battlecry!
In the same way PARRALOX’s ‘Electricity’ was a homage to the then brave new world of digitally sequenced electropop, MAISON VAGUE’s debut harks back to an earlier stage of Synth Britannia.
Consisting of lone American-born keyboardist / programmer Clark Stiefel, the title track of MAISON VAGUE’s album was initially a reaction to a YouTube video entitled ‘Synthpop Is Dead’.
Totally disagreeing with its creator, Clark responded but instead of speaking his protest, he sang it in a classic synthpop style. The opening salvo of “Everyone’s entitled to opinion… you have yours and well I have mine. And though it seems that our opinions differ… you’ll agree in time!” could be the sound of PLACEBO gone electro.
Featuring lots of organic synth sounds and rich vintage soloing, some clever programming helps to provide a fluid as opposed to mechanical rhythm section to give it heart and soul.
With a template of GARY NUMAN meets DEVO, among the other tracks from the album, the brilliant ‘Give Them Away’ takes its lead from ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and in particular ‘Observer’, but is developed into a far more complete composition. It also finishes with a simulated violin solo that recalls ULTRAVOX’s Billy Currie who incidentally played on that very Numan album. Its second cousin ‘Buried In Sandstone’ is also decidedly Numan-esque while ‘My Situation’ takes its inspiration from THE HUMAN LEAGUE.
Changing the tempo slightly, the reggae stabbed electro of ‘Tunnel Vision’ recalls late 90s cult combo BAXENDALE and lifts in the chorus via some lovely layers of string machine. As a whole, ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ combines aggression with eccentricity although a sly tongue-in-cheek irony allows the listener to have fun and not take it all too seriously!