2018 saw JEAN-MICHEL JARRE celebrate 50 years in the business and whether the world really needed another of his compilations, ‘Planet Jarre’ was probably one of the better collected representations of his work for casual admirers.
But not standing still and releasing his fourth new album in three years, ‘Equinoxe Infinity’ continued the story as the French Maestro tuned 70.
SOFT CELL made a totally unexpected return for a huge one-off farewell gig at London’s O2 Arena; and with it came a boxed set, the ‘Northern Lights’ single and other new recordings which have raised hopes for a new album.
From the same era, FIAT LUX announced plans for their debut album ‘Save Symmetry’ with an excellent lead track ‘It’s You’, while B-MOVIE came up with their most synth-propelled single yet in ‘Stalingrad’.
But one act who actually did comeback with a brand new album in 2018 were DUBSTAR; now a duo of Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie, as ‘One’ they reminded audiences as to why they were the acceptable face of Britpop with their bridge to Synth Britannia.
IONNALEE finally released her debut opus ‘Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten’ and her tour which included choice cuts from IAMAMIWHOAMI, proved to be one of the best value-for-money live experiences in 2018, one that was even endorsed by Welsh songstress Charlotte Church.
CHVRCHES offered up their third album ‘Love Is Dead’ and continued their role as international flagwavers for quality synthpop, while EMIKA presented her best album yet in ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’, an exquisite electronic record with a Bohemian aura.
JOHN GRANT was on an artistic roll both solo and in partnership with WRANGLER as CREEP SHOW with two new albums. However, he was beaten by Neil Arthur who managed three albums over a 12 month period as NEAR FUTURE and BLANCMANGE including ‘Wanderlust’, possibly the latter’s best body of work in its 21st Century incarnation.
It was a busy year for STEVE JANSEN with a new solo ambient work ‘Corridor’, the well-received vinyl reissue of JAPAN’s two Virgin-era studio albums and his epic, more organically flavoured band project EXIT NORTH with their debut long player ‘Book Of Romance & Dust’.
SARAH NIXEY went on some ‘Night Walks’ for her best solo album yet, a wonderful collection of everything she had ever been musically all wonderfully rolled into one.
Meanwhile TRACEY THORN went back to the ‘Dancefloor’ with her ‘Record’ which content wise was right up there with some of ALISON MOYET’s electronica output from the last five years.
Hungary’s BLACK NAIL CABARET offered some noirish ‘Pseudopop’ and promising Norwich youngsters LET’S EAT GRANDMA got more deeply into electronica without losing any of their angsty teenage exuberance on their second album ‘I’m All Ears’.
Less intense and more dreamy were GLASSHOUSE, the new duo fronted by former TECHNIQUE singer Xan Tyler.
While the new HEAVEN 17 album ‘Not For Public Broadcast’ is still to be finished, Glenn Gregory teamed by with live keyboardist Berenice Scott as AFTERHERE. Their long-time friend Claudia Brücken performed as xPROPAGANDA with Susanne Freytag and partnered up with one-time TANGERINE DREAM member Jerome Froese, releasing the ‘Beginn’ album in the process.
Highly appealing were a number of quirky Japanese influenced female artists from around the globe including COMPUTER MAGIC, MECHA MAIKO and PLASMIC. But there were also a number of acts with Far Eastern heritage like STOLEN, FIFI RONG, DISQO VOLANTE and SHOOK who continued to make a worthy impression with their recorded output in 2018.
Heavy synth rock duo NIGHT CLUB presented their ‘Scary World’ on the back of tours opening for COMBICHRIST and A PERFECT CIRCLE while also from across the pond, NYXX and SINOSA both showcased their alluring potential.
At the poppier end of the spectrum, Holger Wobker used Pledge Music to relaunch BOYTRONIC with their most recent vocal incumbent James Knights in an unexpected twist to once again prove the old adage to “never say never” as far as the music industry is concerned.
Meanwhile, Chris Payne co-wrote and co-produced the excellent ‘Walking In West Berlin’ EP with KATJA VON KASSEL while also revealing plans for an autobiography and opening for his old boss…
The surprise album of the year was CHRIS CARTER with his ‘Chemistry Lessons Volume One’ while using a not dissimilar concept with their second album ‘Hello Science’, REED & CAROLINE took their folk laden synthpop out on a US tour opening for ERASURE.
STEVEN JONES & LOGAN SKY harked back to the days when GARY NUMAN and OMD would release two albums in one year by offering ‘Hans Und Lieselotte’ and ‘The Electric Eye’ in 2016. Those veteran acts themselves celebrated their 40th anniversaries by going orchestral, something which SIMPLE MINDS also did when they opted to re-record ‘Alive & Kicking’ for the ’80s Symphonic’ collection although Jim Kerr forgot how a third of the song went!
With SIMPLE MINDS also performing a horrible and barely recognisable ‘Promised You A Miracle’ during BBC’s ‘The Biggest Weekend’, making up for the live joke that his former band have become was one-time bassist Derek Forbes with the album ‘Broken Hearted City’ as ZANTi with Anni Hogan of MARC & THE MAMBAS fame. Other former members of high-profile bands were busy too with Ian Burden, formally of THE HUMAN LEAGUE returning with the Floydian ‘Hey Hey Ho Hum’ while A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS reformed briefly for an orchestral re-run of their catalogue.
With the release of their second album ‘Kinetik’, EKKOES handed over THE HUMAN LEAGUE support baton to SHELTER who came up with their best body of work yet in the more introspective shades of ‘Soar’
That darker approach manifested itself on singer Mark Bebb’s side project FORM with Keith Trigwell of SPEAK & SPELL whose debut long player ‘defiance + entropy’ also came out in 2018.
There was a good showing from UK acts in 2018 with RODNEY CROMWELL, ANI GLASS, THE FRIXION, NEW ARCADES, OLLIE WRIDE and FAKE TEAK all issuing some excellent synth tinged songs for public consumption. However, the side was let down by the conveyor belt of lame profanity laden offerings from a number of British acts afflicted with deluded normality.
NINA’s long awaited debut album ‘Sleepwalking’ was a fine hybrid of synthpop and the currently fashionable Synthwave aesthetic; her live double billing with Canadian synthpopsters PARALLELS was one of the hottest tickets of the year. The sub-genre was indeed making waves and there were some very enjoyable artists coming out of it like GUNSHIP, DANA JEAN PHOENIX and MICHAEL OAKLEY.
However, the endless AOR excesses, moonlight sax breaks and highly unimaginative band monikers using numbers between 80 to 89 affixed to an archaic technology reference, illustrated by yet another neon sunset, VCR grid and Lamborghini, were becoming tiresome.
As Synthwave cynics, The Electricity Club’s touch paper was being lit big time! The whole point of the synthesizer’s role during the Second British Invasion of the US was to fight against the insipid overtures of AOR like TOTO, CHICAGO and JOURNEY, NOT to make music coated with its horrid stench as THE MIDNIGHT did in 2018 with their long player ‘Kids’.
But there was naivety within some quarters too; electronic music did not begin in 2011 with ‘Drive’, an above average film with a good if slightly over rated soundtrack. However, its cultural influence has led to a plethora of meandering tracks made by gamer boys which sounded like someone had forgotten to sing on them; perhaps they should have gone back to 1978 and listened to GIORGIO MORODER’s ‘Midnight Express Theme’ to find out how this type of instrumental music should be done?
Many of the newer artists influenced by Synth Britannia that The Electricity Club has featured have sometimes been accused of being stuck in the past, but a fair number of Synthwave acts were really taking the soggy biscuit with their retro-obsession.
Rock band MUSE’s use of glowing artwork by Kyle Lambert of ‘Stranger Things’ fame on their eighth album ‘Simulation Theory’ sent sections of the Synthwave community into meltdown. There were cries that they had “stolen the aesthetics and concept” and how “it’s not relevant to their sound”! But WHAM! had Peter Saville designed sleeves and never sounded like NEW ORDER or OMD, while electropop diva LA ROUX used a visual stylisation for ‘In For The Kill’ that has since been claimed by Synthwavers as their own, despite it being from 2009 when Ryan Gosling was peddling graveyard indie rock in DEAD MAN’S BONES 😉
This was one of the bigger ironies of 2018, especially as MUSE have always used synths! One of Matt Bellamy and co’s biggest musical inspirations is ULTRAVOX, indicating the trio probably have a better understanding of the fusion between the synthesizer, rock and classical music, as proven by the ‘Simulation Theory’ bookends ‘Algorithm’ and ‘The Void’, than any static laptop exponent with a Jan Hammer fixation.
It is interesting to note today how electronic music has split into so many factions, but there’s still the assumed generalisation that it is all one thing and that synthpop fans must also like Synthwave, Deep House, EDM, Industrial and those tedious beach chill-out remixes.
Back in the day and even now, some fans of THE HUMAN LEAGUE didn’t like OMD, DEPECHE MODE fans only liked DEPECHE MODE and rock fans had a token favourite electronic band. Out of all the synth based pop acts of the Synth Britannia era, The Electricity Club had very little time for THOMPSON TWINS despite their huge international success, but their leader Tom Bailey’s 2018 solo recorded return ‘Science Fiction’ was warmly received by many.
Just as COLDPLAY and SNOW PATROL fans don’t all embrace ELBOW, it is ok to have preferences and to say so. Not liking the music of an artist does not make you a bad person, but liking everything does not make you a better person either… in fact, it shows you probably have no discerning taste! In 2002, SOFT CELL warned of a ‘Monoculture’, and if there is no taste differentiation in art and music, it will spell the end of cultural enhancement.
2018 was a year of good songs rather than good albums, with many of long players not as consistent or as of high a standard as the bumper crop from the Class of ’17.
However, The Electricity Club had plenty of material to choose from for its 30 SONGS OF 2018 and while it can’t include everything, worthy mentions go to ANI GLASS, BLACK NAIL CABARET, BRÜCKEN FROESE, DANA JEAN PHOENIX, DISQO VOLANTE, DUBSTAR, EKKOES, FAKE TEAK, FRAGRANCE, THE FRIXION, GUNSHIP, HILTIPOP, IAMX, LIZETTE LIZETTE, TRAIN TO SPAIN and WITCH OF THE VALE who were in this year’s shortlist.
Interestingly, three graduates from the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ made it into the final list, thus highlighting the longevity of that particular vinyl showcase some 37 years on!
So with a restriction of one song per artist moniker, here are The Electricity Club’s 30 SONGS OF 2018 presented in alphabetical order…
AFTERHERE Breaking Rules
AFTERHERE is the brand new project of HEAVEN 17 singer Glenn Gregory and live keyboardist Berenice Scott, but with their roles reversed. Exploring their inner GOLDFRAPP but in a funkier vein, with groovy reminisces of ‘Twist’ and ‘Yes Sir’, the song seductively boasted a captivating sexually charged electronic energy. Berenice Scott said to The Electricity Club: “We always wanted to have a driving track on the album that you could hopefully move your feet to, party to… possibly get in a little trouble!”
Available on the AFTERHERE album ‘Addict’ via Manners McDade
While the Clarke was strong with this one, the first impression that came across with ‘Utopia’ was that things became a slight bit darker in the world of JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM. Despite that, there was a rousing chorus and percolating sequences to savour as he pointed out the futility of seeking that perfect future, when life has so much more on offer. “I wouldn´t describe the album as dark though” the DAILY PLANET synthesist helpfully told The Electricity Club, “it´s absolutely a pop album.”
Available on the JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM album ‘Utopia’ via Progress Productions
For BLANCMANGE, ‘Distant Storm’ was rather unusual with its dance beat, reverberant Moog bassline and dreamy processed vocoder aesthetic. With a rousing, almost spiritual quality and elements of JAMES’ ‘Come Home’ creeping in for good measure, it displayed Neil Arthur’s comfort in working with producer Benge on effectively their third album together. “I wanted to sing it as though it was really detached with my voice being synthesized” he told The Electricity Club.
Available on the BLANCMANGE album ‘Wanderlust’ via Blanc Check Records
Veteran Mansfield quartet B-MOVIE made their most electronic pop single to date with the chilling aesthetics of ‘Stalingrad’. Complete with an infectious synth melody, an eerie mezzo-soprano and using the crucial Second World War battle as a metaphor for a doomed relationship, it was possibly Steve Hovington, Paul Statham, Rick Holliday and Graham Boffey’s best song since their 21st Century reformation; appropriately, its B-side was called ‘Something Cold’…
Available on the B-MOVIE EP ‘Repetition’ via Loki Records
‘Get Out’ may have acted as a superb launch single, but starting off their ‘Love Is Dead’ album was the wonderful ‘Graffiti’. This was a classic kaleidoscopic CHVRCHES tune that punched the sky with some rousing vocals. It was also a supreme singalong showcasing Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Docherty in full bouncy Taylor mode. Despite the downcast lyrical demeanour on lost youth and the passing of time, this was still a grand pop statement.
Australian duo CONFIDENCE MAN were a ray of sunshine in 2018 with their own brand of campy dork pop, being everything SCISSOR SISTERS should have been. ‘Don’t You Know I’m In A Band’ was an amusing satire on ego and sense of entitlement in the music industry. With an electro take on the groovy swoop of WAR’s ‘Low Rider’, a pitch shifted Sugar Bones came over like an inebriate Teddy Pendergrass while Janet Planet delightfully counterpointed in her alluring girly manner.
CREEP SHOW is the meeting of minds between eclectic singer / songwriter John Grant and the dark analogue electro of WRANGLER whose members comprise Stephen Mallinder, Benge and Phil Winter. On ‘Safe & Sound’, the quartet explored a spacious KRAFTWERK and GIORGIO MORODER hybrid to reveal gradually some wonderfully warm melodic synth textures to accompany Grant’s passionate lead croon. The project led to Benge also working on Grant’s ‘Love Is Magic’ album also released in 2018.
Driven by a meaty electronic bassline and metronomic backbone, the marvellous vocoder-laden ‘Comrades’ by RODNEY CROMWELL captured a really chilling Cold War atmosphere, bathed in an ensemble of sweeping synth oboes and cosmic string machines. “I ended up thumping at the MicroKorg and came up with the opening riff” he said. Rich with melody and a panoramic resonance, it surreally captured the sound of Moroder being played through a Soviet Foxtrot submarine intercom system.
With ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’, EMIKA produced one of the best electronic albums of 2018. The record was a concept album of sorts, a musical reflection on generations of sadness within the Anglo-Czech musician’s family in her most personal statement yet. The pacey ‘Promises’ made the most of her lower and higher vocal registers, providing an eerie cascading harmonic with some rumbling dubby tension and booming stabs driving Eastwards with solemn spine tingling qualities.
Taking in more synthetic ambitions, FARAO’s second album ‘Pure-O’ was a playful bleep forward. While ‘The Ghost Ship’ saw Kari Jahnsen focussed on her forlorn little girl lost lyrics, the wonderfully uptempo ‘Marry Me’ offered an accessible PET SHOP BOYS flavour and romantic layers of vocals masking a deep scepticism of the institution of marriage, while the lush backing and chugging electronic backbone carried the air of her compatriot SUSANNE SUNDFØR.
Available on the FARAO album ‘Pure-O’ via Western Vinyl
Releasing their first new material in over three decades, FIAT LUX returned with the most splendid ‘It’s You’. As well as the bassline and harmony from David P Crickmore, the sax style was a fitting tribute to the sadly departed Ian Nelson. Singer Steve Wright said: “Lyrically, I hope, it expresses feelings that possibly everyone can relate to…” – their long awaited debut album ‘Saved Symmetry’ is expected in 2019.
Available on the FIAT LUX single ‘It’s You’ via Splid Records
The ‘Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten’ album was easily equal to Jonna Lee’s work with IAMAMIWHOAMI. Best of the set was possibly the marvellous closing number ‘Fold’. Featuring exotic cascading timbres and spacey pulsars, distorted string synths added tan appropriate chill as Lee’s passionate vocals completed the filmic vibe. Less mysterious, the IONNALEE transition was a triumph, especially with one of the best value-for-money live presentations of 2018.
Asking if “it is foolish to dream”, ‘Someday’ saw KATJA VON KASSEL questioning a moment of passionate haste. “The phrase ‘Someday’ just opened it all up and everything else just fell into place.” the chanteuse said. Capturing the beautiful melancholy of ASSOCIATES’ Billy Mackenzie, the doomed romantic tragedy of the sadly departed Scot was echoed by the chanteuse’s deep forlorn delivery, accompanied by CHRIS PAYNE’s hypnotic bassline and haunting vox humana treatment over a simple rhythmic loop.
Despite their age, LET’S EAT GRANDMA have a feisty but mature musical ambition, as successfully realised on ‘Donnie Darko’, an 11 minute tribute to the troubled teenager haunted by a monstrous rabbit-like figure. Utilising a sedate start before morphing into a wonderful movement of cascading electronics set to a metronomic beat, there were passionate reflections on the subject of human suffering. It all went a bit “batsh*t crazy” into a glorious synthony before calming to its conclusion!
Available on the LET’S EAT GRANDMA album ‘I’m All Ears’ via Transgressive Records
CHRIS LIEBING featuring POLLY SCATTERGOOD And All Went Dark
Noted techno exponent CHRIS LIEBING teamed up with Mute label mate POLLY SCATTERGOOD on a stark polyrhythmic number appropriately titled ‘And All Went Dark’. The brooding minimalist electronic piece with its eerily poetic spoken contribution from Miss Scattergood saw the Essex songstress haunted by a “dark shadow on my shoulder” and telling how “a sickness took hold early on”.
Available on the CHRIS LIEBING album ‘Burn Slow’ via Mute Artists
With the name transcending Toronto based Hayley Stewart’s fascination with Japanese culture, cyber space and a love of vintage synthesis, ‘Mad But Soft’ was her first album as MECHA MAIKO. The magically crystalline ‘False Memories’ could have been part of the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack. Uncomplicated on the surface yet multi-layered and airy, this day-glow pink neo-instrumental concoction was well-thought through and deliciously produced.
One-time RÖYSKSOPP collaborator Ryan A James continues to hone and develop his hybrid mix of luxuriant synthetics and subtle guitar textures as MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY. He said about the gorgeous electronic bubblebath of ‘Lafayette’: “It’s really a song about the end of a relationship, disguised as a song about Scientology, and how defectors of Scientology are disowned by their loved ones. The name comes from the religion’s founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard.”
Available on the MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY album ‘Infinity Mirror’ via Killing Moon Records
“Beware! It’s a scary world” and with their BRITNEY SPEARS fronting NINE INCH NAILS template, NIGHT CLUB took their sweet but sinister synth rock sound to its zenith with the title track of their second album. And when the children’s choir joined in the chorus to sing of demons everywhere, this was a musical trick or treat that no parent would want their offspring to be part of, the message being “they only love you if you swallow”!
A fabulously optimistic closer to NINA’s debut album, ‘80s Girl’ came beaming over like some missing song from the film ‘Mannequin’. With big Simmons drums, sampled orchestra stabs and driving synthbass triplets, it was however delivered with subtlety and restraint so that it wasn’t a HEART or STARSHIP pastiche. Dedicated to her mother, it had a telling message of “don’t let the past hold you back”.
Perhaps best known as the alluring if slightly blunt chanteuse of BLACK BOX RECORDER, SARAH NIXEY released her best solo album to date in ‘Night Walks’, a quality record with air and presence, collecting everything she has ever been musically, all rolled into one. One of its key tracks was the delightful ‘Journey’, a glorious number of the type that Marc Almond has often been so good at, laced with crystalline synths and gorgeously breathy vocal tones à la Jane Birkin.
Available on the SARAH NIXEY album ‘Night Walks’ via Black Lead Records
The ‘Savage’ album turned out to be both an artistic and commercial vindication for GARY NUMAN. ‘It Will End Here’ from ‘The Fallen’ EP was a natural progression from that, exploring a heavy but melodic electronic sound without relying on the predictable backing of rock guitars. With and anthemic chorus and the apocalypse is looming over the aural desert, there was even a soaring vocal pitch shift up at the song’s conclusion which added an extra eerie vampiric quality.
NYXX is very much her own woman, like the Greek goddess of night she is named after, a figure of power and beauty with a Britney-like vocal presence that sweetly offsets some of her darker overtones. A collaboration with Daniel Graves of AESTHETIC PERFECTION who contributed a glorious evangelical middle eight, she said “It would not be what it is without him. I came in with a sketch of a song, a melody and lyric of another song… Daniel heard nuances in it and we built what is now ‘Voodoo’.”
Available on the NYXX single ‘Voodoo’ via Close To Human Music
Eddie Bengtsson and Marina Schiptjenko initially came together in PAGE releasing their first single ‘Dansande Man’ in 1983. Since then, the pair have parted and reunited on a number of occasions but the mission for the ‘Start’ EP was to party like it’s 1979 when GARY NUMAN was No1. ‘Nere För Räkning’ was an urgent slice of pulsing synthrock with a piercing vibratoed lead line akin to the keyboard interventions heard on ‘The Pleasure Principle’.
Available on the PAGE EP ‘Start’ via Energy Rekords
From Mission Viejo in California, PLASMIC describes herself as an “Orange County one-woman dervish” and in a vivid haze that’s pretty in pink, “your abused Barbie doll from childhood”. Combining J-Pop with CRYSTAL CASTLES and DEVO, the undoubted standout from her ‘Validation Nation’ EP was ‘Baby Machine’, an immensely catchy feminist electropop anthem utilising a mixture of vintage Casio and Yamaha sounds that challenged the expectations of women to bear children.
Championed by none other than Vince Clarke, REED & CAROLINE successfully combine tunes with electronic experimentation. The haunting ‘Entropy’ was a tribute to a departed friend and a fabulously touching GARY NUMAN homage to his ‘Dance’ period, in particular ‘Cry The Clock Said’. The hypnotic soundtrack of gentle preset rhythms and eerie electric piano, courtesy of a Buchla modular synth, was complimented by Schutz even adopting the phrasing of the man born Gary Anthony James Webb.
Weird and wonderful, ‘Red Moon Voyage’ was a ghostly 10 minute epic comprising of glitchy voices and varying rhythm constructions recorded especially for Halloween. Free of album concepts and the pop song format, this was FIFI RONG at her most adventurous yet, delightfully adding her native Mandarin language towards the third part. She told The Electricity Club: “having a long journey means you can get very deep and lots of moods and transitions”.
Marc Almond and Dave Ball were the boys who came back-back-BACK as SOFT CELL in 2018. ‘Northern Lights’ reminisced about their days at the Wigan Casino and recaptured the pop essence that led to the duo having five consecutive Top 10 hits! Despite the grittiness and energetics, the duo always had melody and that came back in abundance on their welcome recorded return. The darker B-Side ‘Guilty (‘Cos I Say You Are)’ affirmed that as a creative force, SOFT CELL still had it.
Chinese six-piece STOLEN are reckoned by Berlin-based producer Mark Reeder to be possibly the most exciting band he has seen since NEW ORDER. Certainly their debut album ‘Fragment’ was impressive and one of the best of 2018, with ‘Turn Black’ being one of the standout tracks. “I like the idea of mixing of rock with techno…” said growly lead vocalist Liang Yi, “we are very proud that we don’t sound like any of the other Chinese bands.”
Ingo Hauss and Hayo Lewerentz handed back the BOYTRONIC brand to Holger Wobker and returned to being U96, teaming up with former KRAFTWERK percussionist Wolfgang Flür for the best track by either party in recent years. Stark and Teutonic with stark robotic vocoder aesthetics, the union of two German musical heavyweights from different generations was equal to Flür’s ‘Activity Of Sound’ collaboration with Ireland’s iEUROPEAN.
Combining piano, synths, field recordings, drones, occasional beats, old string instruments and HILARY WOODS’ wonderfully forlorn voice in the vein of Julee Cruise, ‘Jesus Said’ questioned the existence of God. Described by the Irish songstress herself as “a song that seeks catharsis”, her child-like expression over the drifting synthesized tones and hypnotic drum machine to augment her beautiful piano playing gave ‘Jesus Said’ a gentle meditative quality.
Available on the HILARY WOODS album ‘Colt’ via Sacred Bones
Championed by none other than Vince Clarke and signed to his Brooklyn-based VeryRecords, REED & CAROLINE have just completed a successful US tour with ERASURE.
Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz’s 2016 debut album ‘Buchla & Singing’ did what it said on the tin, combining tunes with electronic experimentation but released in 2018, its follow-up ‘Hello Science’ is a much more on point as a distinct pop focussed offering suitable for live concert performances.
Marvellous quirky pop songs from the new album like ‘The Internet Of Things’ highlight the potential downfalls of modern society’s over-reliance on web-connected devices and home appliances, while there are also more personal moments like the stark eulogy of ‘Entropy’. It’s a reminder that it’s the juxtaposition of humans and electronics that made the best classic synthpop what it was and how synthesizers should never be the excuse for a song…
Now back home, Reed Hays kindly chatted to The Electricity Club about science, Buchlas, Orchestrons and his radio show with Vince Clarke…
What would you say is the creative dynamic of REED & CAROLINE?
We have always contributed our musicianship to each other’s works. When Caroline was working with her band FOLKSONGS FOR THE AFTERLIFE, I was playing cello on music she wrote. For REED & CAROLINE she is singing on songs I wrote.
How do you look back on your debut album ‘Buchla & Singing’?
I still like to listen to it, and we’ve performed some of the songs while we’ve been supporting ERASURE. The audiences have got misty-eyed during ‘John & Rene’, which is wonderful to watch.
How did the Buchla come to be the instrument of choice for REED & CAROLINE?
The Buchla spoke to me as soon as I heard my dad play a MORTON SUBOTNICK LP when I was a kid. I went to the only college in the US that would allow 18-year-olds to touch a Buchla. As soon as I made enough money from writing TV music, I started buying Buchla instruments.
The pattern over several years was that I would use the Buchla more and more and sell off my other analogue synthesizers. When it came to doing other music, apart from TV stuff, it felt most comfortable for me to do it solely on the Buchla.
You’ve added a Vako Orchestron to your armoury, where did you find that and what’s it like to use?
It came from the fabled Sound City studio in Los Angeles during a revamp a couple years ago. It’s only real appearance in the pop canon is on three KRAFTWERK albums, and I’m a huge fan of how it sounds. The crackly, low-bandwidth character of the instrument sounds like you’re peering at the future from the past.
You had sounds of your own customised and made into optical discs to use with the Orchestron, so who makes these then now?
Once I started searching for people who knew about Orchestrons, I discovered Pea Hicks who lives in San Diego.
Pea has access to the old machinery that made discs for the Orchestron and its predecessor the Optigan.
What other synths or software are used in your recordings?
I pretend ProTools is a tape recorder. For synchronization, I feed 16th-note audio clicks into the Buchla’s Envelope Follower.
Your songwriting appears to come from a folk tradition which is something you have in common with Vince Clarke?
I like simple melodies and whatever chords make them speak the best. I like modal interchange as much as the next guy, but Vince once reminded me that ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ takes you on a journey with only three chords.
How did Vince Clarke and VeryRecords become interested in REED & CAROLINE?
My friend Mark Verbos of Verbos Electronic helped to produce an event in Brooklyn called ‘Machines In Music’. He asked me if I’d give a lecture about using old synths in new productions. Halfway through the lecture Vince walked in with a mutual friend, and we wound up having lunch. Later the friend played my song ‘Henry The Worm’ from what would become ‘Buchla & Singing’ for Vince, who decided it would be fun to release on his VeryRecords label.
What inspired the concept of ‘Hello Science’?
I grew up in a science and engineering town that also had a space museum so I was surrounded by it from an early age.
When I was little, there was a lot of idealism that science and technology would solve everyone’s problems. Now that I’m older, it’s less about a shiny future and more about science being discredited in these crazy modern times. Scientific concepts also make for convenient metaphors.
The ethical dilemmas behind technological progress with regards the backgrounds of some of those scientists must have provided an interesting background to write to?
Details of Operation Paperclip and the Dora Camp weren’t too public while I was growing up, but the concert hall where I played in the symphony orchestra did have a gigantic painting of Wernher von Braun.
Interestingly, the title song of the new album is all cello?
I took a small Buchla system and a cello to provide background music for an event that my painter friend Stephen Hall was involved in. When Vince heard a recording of it, he put it on the VeryRecords Soundcloud, and that set the stage for using cello on other projects.
I didn’t know how Vince would react if I did something entirely on the cello, so at the very end of ‘It’s Science’, there’s one chime note on the Buchla, just in case he didn’t like it.
‘Entropy’ was an intriguing number and sounded like it was influenced by the ’Dance’ album period of GARY NUMAN which people rarely highlight?
America’s introduction to synthpop was through GARY NUMAN on ‘Saturday Night Live’ at the very end of 1979. As a child, I was captivated. I hated the saxophones on ‘Dance’, but the pitch-shifted CR-78 drums were so cool. ‘Entropy’ was an opportunity to recreate that feel on the Buchla. I even made a polyphonic patch to mimic the Yamaha CP-30 electronic piano.
‘Dark Matter’ is a quirky little pop tune recorded with KITE BASE? How did that come together?
There’s a YouTube video called ‘Two Bald Blokes & a Buchla’ where Vince interviews me and the camera pans to some rock stars that our friend Elia Einhorn brought to the studio. One of the rock stars was Ayşe Hasan of SAVAGES.
Later on, while producing ‘Dark Matter’, I had a terrible time with the synth bass line. Everything seemed to slow down the track. Just when I wanted to scrap the whole song, I got a text from Ayse and her friend Kendra Frost that they were in New York. I set them up in the studio with two bass guitars and the rhythm track for ‘Dark Matter’.
It was amazing watching them work out parts for the song. For the verses Kendra played low notes and Ayse played high notes, and for the choruses they switched roles. To come up with parts they sang them to each other, “Da da da da”. That sounded great, too, so I got them on mic singing for the breakdowns in the middle and the end.
There seems to be a love / hate relationship with how technology has affected the world, ‘Digital Trash’ being a case in point which can be taken in many ways?
Vince kept gently asking me to join social media after we made the first album, so there I was on Facebook and Twitter ten years after everyone else. I’m sure my friends went through that “nothing dies on the internet” thing a lot earlier than I did.
‘Computers’ is another one, what’s that about?
Over the past couple hundred years, prominent male astronomers and rocket engineers had employed uncredited women to crunch the numbers. They were actually referred to as computers. The song wrote itself!
You’ve just finished touring North America with ERASURE, what was that like and how did you adapt you sound for the stage?
After we did a little club date in New York to celebrate the release of ‘Buchla & Singing’, Vince asked if we’d tour with ERASURE.
Upon realizing he wasn’t kidding I wrote the ‘Hello Science’ album with performance in mind.
The big departure from the recorded albums is that I sing the backup vocals through a Xils EMS-5000 vocoder plug-in. There’s a small Buchla cabinet with patches accessible by unmuting channels in the mixer module. There’s also a NS Design cello on a tripod.
Tell us about ‘The Synthesizer Show’… 😉
It’s the ideal venue to hear two grown men eating roasted peanuts while listening to VISAGE.
What’s next for REED & CAROLINE?
Caroline is going straight from the airport to her daughters’ school to sign people up for the Parent-Teachers Association. That’s as far ahead as we’ve planned!
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Reed Hays
Currently opening for ERASURE in North America, REED & CAROLINE are the quirky Buchla driven duo who in the mission statement for their second album declared “Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts – it’s science! It’s all about science!”
That second album entitled ‘Hello Science’ was released by Vince Clarke’s Very Records and song titles have included ‘Entropy’, ‘Another Solar System’, ‘Digital Trash’ and ‘Dark Matter’. Like AU REVOIR SIMONE meeting NEW ORDER for a jam session in Greenwich Village, the latter asks “Does dark matter matter?”
‘Dark Matter’ features Ayşe Hassan and Kendra Frost of KITE BASS who join Caroline Schutz for some endearing triple vocal accompaniment, especially in the closing “dah-da-da-da” refrain while also providing dual melodic bass backing to compliment Reed Hays’ electronics.
The appealing tune is now presented in a brand new video accompaniment directed Simon Lowery featuring the entire ‘Dark Matter’ ensemble.
Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz first presented their hybrid of traditionally derived tunes with electronic experimentation on their 2016 debut album ‘Buchla & Singing’, which did what it said on the tin. Hays also hosts a recurring Maker Park Radio series appropriately called ‘The Synthesizer Show’ with Vince Clarke which broadcasts from Staten Island.
In the meantime, REED & CAROLINE continue their Stateside tour with ERASURE until the end of August, while KITE BASE will be opening for NINE INCH NAILS in Washington DC and New York this October as well as New Orleans in November.
Documentary Evidence is an unofficial Mute Records website run by freelance music journalist and electronic music fan Mat Smith.
Named after the Mute Records catalogue booklet inserts that came with their releases from 1987, it is described as featuring “Reviews of artists appearing on Mute Records and its various sub-labels”, but also includes other music writing by Smith.
Like many music bloggers, Smith compiles an end of year Top 10 albums listing and in 2017, he controversially included TAYLOR SWIFT’s ‘Reputation’ at No4 above the No6 placed ‘Spirit’ from DEPECHE MODE.
The decision provoked surprise, discussion, amusement and condemnation; how could a respected authority on the legend of Mute Records appear to betray the musical foundations they were built on? However, other commentators were not so surprised and saw it as a sign.
Mat Smith chatted to The Electricity Club about why last year, he preferred Taytay over Essex Dave and presented his Documentary Evidence…
What was the motivation and ethos behind establishing the Documentary Evidence website?
I started writing a blog at university in about 1996, even though it wasn’t called a blog back then. That blog focussed on reviews of concerts I’d been to and records I’d bought that week. I called it Red Elvis Central for reasons that at the time felt important but which now seem silly. I wrote Red Elvis Central until I left uni, at which point anything I’d written up to that point was suddenly lost forever, and I got sucked into a graduate training programme in a non-musical, very sensible career.
I started the Documentary Evidence website in 2003. I distinctly remember it was a Saturday afternoon, I’d had to go into London for work in the morning and my wife was out at her grandmother’s house when I got home. With nothing better to do, I sat myself down in front of my PC, wrote a review of ‘Text Message’ by VIC TWENTY and by the time she came back home that evening, I’d set up a rudimentary HTML website, which I decided would be a place for me to write about Mute releases for nobody’s enjoyment but my own.
When I was scratching around trying to name the site, I raked through my record collection and found my copy of ERASURE’s ‘Chorus’ 12”, which was the first 12” I’d ever bought. In the sleeve was Mute’s Documentary Evidence catalogue pamphlet, which was what got me hooked on collecting Mute releases in the first place, so it seemed like an obvious thing to name the site with.
When I first picked that catalogue up in 1991, I barely recognised any of the groups and artists listed and I barely even knew what a record label was aside from being a logo.
Photo by Mat Smith
Documentary Evidence switched me on to this notion that there were all these things going on outside of the charts. I also naively assumed that everything released on Mute would sound like ERASURE in some way, which I still laugh at today. I think I envisaged that writing enthusiastically for my Documentary Evidence website would allow me to perpetually remind myself of how exciting it was setting off on that voyage of musical discovery in the early 90s.
The Documentary Evidence website was never intended to attract any attention from anyone else. For most of my life I’ve wanted to record my thoughts and memories in some capacity, just for my own benefit. It felt like a logical thing to extend that into writing about the music that meant something to me and which I’d spent most of my teenage years and twenties collecting in earnest.
Back in 2003 I don’t think I really appreciated that Mute had a sort of ‘cult’ reputation and that there were other people who’d also become avid collectors of their releases. To this day I find it strange that anyone would have even found my website, let alone actually bothered to read it.
About ten years later I started writing occasional live reviews and features for Clash, and that led to working professionally.
Who are your own personal favourites from the Mute roster, both past and present?
ERASURE are the reason that the Documentary Evidence website exists, and they were the first group I really fell for, so they’ll always be my personal favourite.
My dad brought home a copy of ‘The Innocents’ that a friend from work had recorded for him, sometime in 1988. He walked in and said “Matthew, have you heard of this band, ERASURE?” I’d seen them on Saturday morning TV, had heard them in chart and really liked them, but I didn’t have enough pocket money at that time to buy any music.
I grabbed the cassette off him, rushed upstairs to my bedroom and more or less listened to it non-stop on my Walkman for months after that. I still get a huge surge of emotion every time I hear something new by ERASURE, and I can chart the most important points in my personal life by their music. They’ll always be really special to me.
Right now, I’m really excited about the SHADOWPARTY album that comes out on Mute later this month. SHADOWPARTY includes members of the current NEW ORDER and DEVO line-ups, and their debut album is brilliant, like a time machine into a classic Manchester feel-good sound.
The other artist on the label I’ve been listening to a lot lately is DANIEL BLUMBERG, whose debut solo album ‘Minus’ was released by Mute earlier this year. ‘Minus’ came up out of Dalston’s Café Oto improvisation scene, but that sense of freedom is combined with some truly moving, genuinely profound lyrics. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Daniel recently and he’s clearly a prodigious talent and probably unmatched in terms of his artistic vision. Being able to get inside the head of a musician and into the story behind an album or piece of music is the greatest privilege of being a music journalist, and spending time with Daniel was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career.
You’ve established and maintained a good working relationship with Vince Clarke?
I interviewed Vince and ORBITAL’s Paul Hartnoll for Electronic Sound when Vince started his own label, VeryRecords, and launched it with the album ‘2Square’ that he and Paul did together in 2016.
VeryRecords is totally his own thing and he tries to do absolutely everything himself, as he’s so personally invested in the label. I really respect that. Richard Evans provides support for the technical side of running the label, but apart from that it’s a fully solo endeavour. He could get anyone to help with any part of running a small label and just put his name to it, but he doesn’t. It’s his thing, and he’s really enjoying it.
I can’t quite remember now whether I volunteered to help put the press releases together for future VeryRecords releases or if he asked me if I’d like to help – we were in bar, and beer was involved – but somehow I ended up working on the materials to support the first REED & CAROLINE album ‘Buchla & Singing’, and the two releases he’s put out since – ALKA’s ‘The Colour Of Terrible Crystal’ and ‘Hello Science’ by REED & CAROLINE.
As a lifelong ERASURE fan, to be able to call Vince my boss is probably the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m so grateful for this opportunity and for the trust he’s placed in my skills as a writer. I wish I could say the same of everyone I’ve worked for.
What level of DEPECHE MODE fan would you describe yourself as? One of The Black Swarm, plain clothes Devotee or an armchair enthusiast?
I’m definitely not in The Black Swarm, and in fact I didn’t even know what the Swarm was until my photographer friend Andy Sturmey explained it to me a few years ago. I guess I’m probably somewhere in between Devotee and armchair enthusiast if I reluctantly had to pigeonhole myself.
DEPECHE MODE are really important to me, no doubt about it, but I actively detested them when I first became aware of them, which would have been just after ‘Violator’ was released.
In my high school English classes I used to sit next to a girl called Sarah Vann whose folder was covered in photos of Depeche from that time. I just figured they were an Athena poster-friendly boyband because of that. I also couldn’t get my head around songs like ‘Personal Jesus’ at all, mostly because I was slightly intimidated by guitar music at the time.
Later, when I read the Documentary Evidence booklet that made me a Mute collector, and I read about Vince having been in DM at the beginning, I felt really conflicted – I suddenly felt duty-bound to collect their material but didn’t think I’d like their music.
I started with a beaten-up copy of ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ borrowed from Stratford-upon-Avon’s library and tentatively went from there. I guess it was appropriate that the CD came from a library – it proves the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its (Depeche-decorated) cover.
Photo by Mat Smith
Between the ages of 15 and 16, I consumed all of their albums and was a paid-up fan by the time ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ was released.
The first concert I ever went to was Depeche at the NEC on 14 December 1993, and I wore a black long-sleeved ‘I Feel You’ t-shirt.
I have really fond memories of that show. I still have the programme and the ticket, but I no longer have the t-shirt.
I once spent a whole afternoon sat on my parents’ sofa listening to ‘The Things You Said’ on repeat because my girlfriend had unceremoniously dumped me. Like ERASURE, their music is inextricably bound in with a lot of very vivid memories.
Much, much later I got the chance to interview Dave and Martin for Clash, Dave when he did the last SOULSAVERS LP and Martin for his instrumental album ‘MG’. Perhaps it’s the point they’re both at in their careers, but neither had massive egos, and both came across as appreciative and humble. I like it when people surprise you.
Had it been your intention to feature artists from outside of the Mute family on Documentary Evidence?
I was really pretty purist at the beginning – this was a Mute site, and it was only ever going to be about Mute. But then again, I started out with a review of the solitary VIC TWENTY single that came out on Credible Sexy Units, a label Daniel Miller formed outside the EMI ownership of Mute for the sole purpose of releasing that one single in 2003, so I was always bending my own rules from the off.
After a while I found myself writing more about musicians that had been on the label and who had then gone off to do different things, or people who were clearly influenced by Mute, or producers who had worked with Mute, or releases by Mute artists but that were released on other labels – tangents, basically, especially with Blast First artists.
Then people started sending me their music, saying they liked my site and asking me if I’d review them. When you’re starting out, the generous act of people wanting to send you the music they’ve laboured over is a really persuasive thing, and to the best of my knowledge I never turned anyone down.
Photo by Mat Smith
I guess it just all got very restrictive after a while, the idea of only writing about Mute when there’s so much more music out there, but to this day I honestly think of Mute as being a lot like my musical spine – it’s at the centre of everything, and I can always form a connection back to that central core, no matter what it is I’m listening to.
Pretty much every music I’ve gotten into can be traced back, in some way, to Mute and that original Documentary Evidence booklet.
Even something like jazz, which I really love now, can be traced back to seeing the name SUN RA as a Blast First artist. It made sense to me that my entry point into jazz would come through SUN RA rather than a more conventional, obvious route.
I guess at some point I decided to start writing about some of those non-Mute things with as much passion and enthusiasm as the Mute stuff, but I wouldn’t be doing any of that if it wasn’t for Mute.
When I became a ‘proper’ music journalist, whatever that is, it would have been really restrictive just writing about Mute.
I’m still normally the first in line enthusiastically pitching a Mute release when a new review section gets commissioned, but I get to cover all sorts of weird and wonderful things, most of which aren’t anything to do with Mute, and I absolutely love that.
Controversially in the Documentary Evidence Top 10 Albums of 2017, you placed DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Spirit’ at No6 but ahead of it was ‘Reputation’ by TAYLOR SWIFT at No4? Please explain… 😉
I do find it amusing that this would be regarded as remotely controversial. It’s only the second year that I’ve done an end of year countdown, and I’m not sure I’d do it again! When I was putting it all together, there were certain albums I knew had to be in there – ‘Reputation’ was always going to be high up in the rankings – but after getting five or six together, I really struggled. It was only when I looked back at what I’d written about that year that I even realised that ‘Spirit’ had been released in 2017, because it felt like it had come out ages before.
Photo by Chi Ming Lai
It wasn’t that ‘Spirit’ was in any way a forgettable album, as my review for Clash was incredibly positive. I even found myself indulging in a bit of journalistic hyperbole when I compared parts of it to MARVIN GAYE’s ‘What’s Going On’, which rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way.
I maintain that it’s a good album – great even. It showed a new side to DEPECHE MODE, one that initially jarred with me, but it was one that I ultimately respected.
I haven’t listened to it once since I assembled that year-end countdown, but I rarely get a chance to listen to albums over and over after I’ve reviewed them these days anyway. You’re more or less always moving onto something else as soon as you’ve filed the review copy.
You shouldn’t view me placing ‘Reputation’ higher than ‘Spirit’ as indicating that I think TAYLOR SWIFT is better than DEPECHE MODE; it just means that ‘Reputation’ means more to me. Documentary Evidence was always intended as a personal website, where everything I wrote was essentially my own subjective view. People are free to disagree with what I write, and frequently do, especially it would seem if I’m writing about DEPECHE MODE. I was roundly slated for giving Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams’ ‘The Posters Came From The Walls’ the positive review that I felt it deserved, and I’ve developed a thick skin about people’s views.
Photo by Chi Ming Lai
The point with TAYLOR SWIFT is that her music means a lot to our family. We have two daughters, ages 12 and 10, and as parents we’re acutely aware of the need for girls to grow up with positive, empowering female role models. TAYLOR SWIFT is the epitome of that.
She’ll go down in history as a great pop musician and songwriter but also as the one who – by suing that radio DJ for a buck – did more to highlight the gross inequalities and power abuses in the entertainment industry than anyone else.
But she also makes great music. We listen to TAYLOR SWIFT on roadtrips all the time and her music brings us closer together as a family. It’s that simple. Debating whether ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ is better than ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ is a nice way to spend a drive around Cornwall, for example. It sure beats arguing.
The four of us going to see her at Wembley last month was among the best evenings out we’ve had as a family. We all wore TAYLOR SWIFT shirts, all sang every song at the top of our lungs and I’d rank it as one of best concerts I’ve ever been to, unashamedly. For me, and plenty of other people, ‘Reputation’ is a bold, multi-hued album that works as both social criticism and fucking great pop music.
What also amused me about people decrying this so-called music journalist snob putting TAYLOR SWIFT in his top ten is that not one DEPECHE MODE fan moaned about me ranking ERASURE higher than ‘Spirit’, or sticking a RYAN ADAMS record above it, or choosing an electronic jazz fusion LP by JAMES HOLDEN as the best thing I heard in 2017! And ‘Spirit’ getting into the top ten, when I conservatively wrote between 80 and 100 reviews last year, is still a pretty big deal.
But TAYLOR SWIFT surely doesn’t have any links to Mute… or does she? 😉
It’s slightly tenuous, but there is a link. Jack Antonoff from BLEACHERS, co-wrote and produced two songs on ‘1989’ and six on ‘Reputation’. Vince Clarke worked with Jack on the first BLEACHERS album, and I think the big, anthemic pop that BLEACHERS make has definitely rubbed off on some of the recent mixes that Vince has done. You can hear some of it in the last ERASURE record, ‘World Be Gone’, too.
Jack’s style is extremely distinctive, but very natural. Some people have to work hard at creating these huge, stadium-friendly, euphoric songs, but it’s like it runs in his veins or something. I knew which songs were his on ‘Reputation’ before I even looked at the credits.
So, yeah, if you squint a little and are happy that it’s an indirect connection, there is one. But I didn’t need one to justify enjoying TAYLOR SWIFT’s music – just the look on my girls’ faces when they were dancing round our lounge to ‘1989’ when they got it for Christmas 2014 was justification enough.
Photo by Mat Smith
The Electricity Club saw this positioning of TAYLOR SWIFT above DEPECHE MODE by a respected Mute Records commentator as oblique symbolism for DM’s current artistic decline, have you any thoughts about how this?
It certainly wasn’t intended that way.
As I said before, I really liked ‘Spirit’, and I really liked its predecessor ‘Delta Machine’, which I awarded eight out of ten in a review I wrote for Clash.
I wonder whether people have unrealistic expectations of what DEPECHE MODE should be doing today.
They’ve been going for nearly forty years and sit on top of a back catalogue containing some incredible moments, and those moments are going to be part of a personal soundtrack to significant events, whereas as we get older we don’t accumulate as many of those things.
Most artists that have been going this long are valued not for what they’re doing today but what they’ve done before, and any new material is just a catalyst for getting back out on the road and playing the hits.
The best example of this is THE ROLLING STONES – they’ve consistently released new material, but it’s generally regarded as second-rate compared to the album’s they released in their first two decades.
Anyone going to a Stones show doesn’t want a set filled with the new stuff – they pay for the hits. I know that fans have moaned about the recent Depeche festival shows not containing enough of their big songs, and I would say that’s probably fair. I don’t think they can hide behind being inexperienced with festivals, as a glance at any other band’s setlist would have provided ample evidence of the rules.
But I do think the fact that Depeche are still trying to do different things – the overt political reference points of ‘Spirit’ or the pronounced bluesiness of ‘Delta Machine’, as examples – shows that they still have a creative spark beyond just rehashing ‘World In My Eyes’ all over again. And if they did that, then people would moan at them for not making any effort. I’m not sure they can win, but it’s not like people aren’t buying their albums or eschewing their shows.
Photo by Simon Helm
At the ‘Mute: A Visual Document’ book launch where there was a live Q&A which included Daniel Miller, it was reported that Anton Corbijn was making made his feelings known publicly about the current direction of DEPECHE MODE? What was your interpretation of what was said?
Honestly, I can’t remember. As the host of that panel discussion, I was too busy making sure I didn’t drop my microphone.
My recollection was that Daniel and Anton were both incredibly positive on Depeche and where they are right now, creatively. These guys are like the fourth and fifth members of that band, as their input into what makes them a band is really important to who they are, what they do, and how it’s presented, and I don’t think that will ever change. If anything, Anton was super positive about how much trust that Dave, Martin and Andy placed in his judgement, and how rare it is to find that these days. I didn’t get the impression that DEPECHE MODE are ignoring his counsel and doing their own thing at all.
That night, I do remember that Daniel said that they’re still a Mute band, even though they’ve left the label. I think that says a lot about how he approaches artists on the label, as well as how much he cares about them; I guess it’s like waving your kids off when they leave home – they’ll always be family. In the same way, Daniel will always be their A&R guy and creative mentor.
Daniel Miller = DM = DEPECHE MODE. That’s a complete coincidence, but it also isn’t.
The Electricity Club often likes to highlight a musical connection it has noted between CHVRCHES and TAYLOR SWIFT, do you hear it as well in her songs like ‘Out Of The Woods’, ‘Gorgeous’ and even ‘Blank Space’?
It’s not something I’ve noticed especially, but it says a lot about the way we music critics approach very overtly successful music that we can only give a pop artist credibility by comparing it to something a little more underground, or something less popular.
Electronic music has been mainstream for the last forty years and it’s only natural that stuff coming out of the underground would feed into popular music. That’s just how it has always worked, all the way through musical history.
Things start outside of the public eye, in almost cultish micro-scenes, they blossom, become popular, popular acts co-opt them, a new thing comes along and it starts again. If it didn’t, this would all be pretty boring and we’d all still be listening to easy listening music.
Is TAYLOR SWIFT consciously riffing off CHVRCHES’ ideas? Probably not. Does she have the budget and bankability to attract any producer she wants to work on her record? Absolutely. Do those producers and her A&R team have their fingers on what’s cool and what’s not? For sure. To me it’s not that surprising.
As far as electronic based artists are concerned, who are the up-and-coming acts that you would rate at the moment?
Electronic music – in its broadest sense – is having one of its most fertile creative periods, from the mainstream to the most avant garde of locales. For example, there’s a German producer called VONICA whose music I’m enjoying right now. He makes this fantastically skewed, very densely-layered music that is umbilically linked to dance music, with all its attendant euphoria and drama, but this slightly off-centre quality. He’s one to watch, for sure.
Elsewhere, I find myself listening to lots and lots of fusion music. Back in the 70s, stuff that fused jazz, electronics and rock together was seen as hugely innovative but over time it became a shorthand for naffness, something that my older self thinks is massively short-sighted as I’ve begun to appreciate things like CHICK COREA’s underrated ‘Return To Forever’. The new groups tackling fusion music are just incredible. JAMES HOLDEN I’ve already mentioned, but there are others like KAMAAL WILLIAMS and RATGRAVE that manage to create these amazingly fresh pieces of music out of seemingly incompatible reference points.
How and why do you think Mute had managed to maintain its position as a credible brand in the music industry after so many years?
I think it all comes down to being artist-led. When you’re artist-led you’re prepared to take more risks to allow them the space to realise their creative vision. When Daniel Miller started Mute again as an independent enterprise, I think that’s why he named it Mute Artists. That’s a very egalitarian, equitable way of approaching running a label – it emphasises that without those artists the label wouldn’t, and couldn’t, exist.
That’s not to say that Mute have always just let artists get up to what they want, because I’ve heard that Daniel is a very hands-on guy, even if he’s not in the studio with every artist on the label. However, if you start with the primacy of the artist and are focussed on allowing them to realise their vision in a supported way, you’re probably going to get the best results.
Going back to what I said about his relationship with Depeche above, he evidently cares for his artists, and I personally think that’s ultimately why he sold Mute Records to EMI – faced with seismic changes in the record industry, he deemed that was the best thing for his artists to allow them to stay creative. It wasn’t for commercial gain, but to give his artists some sort of financial stability. I think it came from a fundamentally good, well-meaning place. It wasn’t like he’d decided to disown his kids and start a new family with someone else. You might think of everything released on Mute as songs representing Daniel’s enduring faith and devotion in the artists whose music he elects to release. I can’t see that ever changing.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Mat Smith