‘Regarding The Auguries’ is the fourth album by ALKA, the electronic music vehicle of Philadelphian Bryan Michael.
It is also the second ALKA record to be released on Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords, following up ‘The Colour Of Terrible Crystal’ from 2017.
As the ‘Regarding The Auguries’ titles suggests, this long player is not a cheerful affair; “An augury is like fortune telling that comes from looking at the patterns of bird flight” said Michael, “Those patterns usually prophecy some sort of doom…”
‘Regarding The Auguries’ is therefore timely but it was recorded before lockdown. Expanding the ALKA line-up to a three way collaboration with vocals by Erika Tele and sonic interventions from Todd Steponick, the tracks developed in slow motion through file exchange with Michael beginning the creative process.
Despite the album being made under the spectre of existential dread looming, it starts in a comparatively lively fashion with the opener ‘Fractured Time’, catchy and immediate with its vocoder and synth hooks that will delight synthwave enthusiasts, although the bursts of sombre bass signal what is to come. ‘Widthchild’ is more metallic and even funky in the loosest sense of the world while using prominent beats and Japanese prose, ‘Faito’ is exotic and enigmatic.
But then the apocalypse looms in ‘Earth Crisis’ and is inevitably sombre in its apocalyptic ambience although at nine minutes, it rather overdoes it, but parts of it would probably fit in perfectly as part of a dystopian Sci-Fi soundtrack.
‘Scrapple’ is not much cheerer but exploits a harder rhythmic core augmented by a chant although ‘Sourcery’ lightens proceedings and ‘My Heart’ adds chimes over some spacey moods before electronic percussion, percolating hooks and sweet girly vocals provide a lift towards its conclusion. The robotic ‘Solfège’ buzzes and blips, albeit with a shadier tinge while with a subtle arpeggio, ‘Doubt’ doesn’t really go anywhere.
However, despite its title, ‘Dead Like Me’ is more accessible and prettier with fabulous synth tones complimenting Tele’s dreamy voice. The closer ‘King Card’ features Vince Clarke on synths and programming and provides some exquisite chattering texturing to the rainy droning backdrop as a guesting Elizabeth Joan Kelly provides the eerie foreboding vocals.
As per usual with VeryRecords releases, a set of remixes append the main act and the boss works his magic on ‘Faito’ in an accessible upbeat fashion verging on Jean-Michel Jarre territory, the Basildon boy obviously applying the knowledge acquired from his collaboration with the French maestro on ‘Automatic’.
Meanwhile, ‘Solfège’ is remixed by FUJIYA & MIYAGI and is inevitably a slice of pulsing electronic motorik merging into drum ‘n’ bass and DJ JEKYLL takes ‘Fractured Time’ into soulful electronic territory with a steadfast groove.
For those who like darker electronic textures from outside of the pop spectrum with contemplative aural concepts that capture the zeitgeist of uncertainty, ‘Regarding The Auguries’ will be worthy of investigation. But for everyone else, they might want to start with the remixes before attempting the album.
‘Regarding The Auguries’ is released by Very Records as a CD and download on 9th October 2020, available direct from https://veryrecords.com/shop/
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
REED & CAROLINE’s debut album ‘Buchla & Singing’ did what it said on the tin and with it came charming quirky synthpop like ‘John & Rene’, ‘Singularity (We Bond)’ and ‘Electron’.
Championed by none other than Vince Clarke and signed to his Brooklyn-based Very Records, Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz successfully combined tunes with electronic experimentation.
Their second album ‘Hello Science’ is more of the same, but with cello and a Vako Orchestron added to the playground apparatus.
The Orchestron was a polyphonic electronic keyboard made famous by KRAFTWERK on ‘Radio-Activity’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ which used optical discs containing pre-recorded sounds such as choirs and strings; for ‘Hello Science’, discs of Caroline Schutz’s voice were specially made using the original Orchestron factory equipment courtesy of its current custodian Pea Hicks!
Buchla launched its Music Easel in 1973 and ‘Hello Science’ certainly comprises of many airy sonic colours in a concept album of sorts inspired by Hays’ hometown of Huntsville, Alabama to where a community of rocket scientists had decamped from Europe after World War Two.
The album’s strapline is “Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts – it’s science! It’s all about science!” and begins with the celebratory ‘Before’; the combination of watery arpeggios, cello and Schutz’s lightly treated voice provides a pleasant start to proceedings with this pretty electronic folk ballad.
The more uptempo and bouncy ‘Dark Matter’ adds vocoder plus some Hooky bass and vocals from Kendra Frost and Ayşe Hassan of KITE BASS. Despite the Brit presence, the track affirms REED & CAROLINE’s distinctly North American sound not unlike AU REVOIR SIMONE, especially in its enticing “dah-da-da-da” refrain.
With a tinge of techno, ‘Buoyancy’ provides a dancey lift while ‘Another Solar System’ is a direct “pie in the sky” reference to the ambitions of NASA with sparkly synths which reflect Hays’ belief that “my love of science is something spiritual and optimistic”.
The title track springs a surprise by being completely acoustic with this cello overture recalling SPARKS in its vocal arrangement and layering but despite this, it doesn’t sound at all out of place.
‘Digital Trash’ is what DUBSTAR would have sounded like if Sarah Blackwood had been born in Brooklyn instead of Halifax and is a wonderfully poignant commentary on social media, data manipulation and online privacy.
Treading not dissimilar musical territory, ‘Ocean’ is full of breezy nautical escapism and Buchla 100 handclaps.
The haunting ‘Entropy’ is a tribute to a departed friend and a fabulously touching Numan homage to his ‘Dance’ period, in particular ‘Cry The Clock Said’. The hypnotic soundtrack of gentle preset rhythms and eerie Roland CP30 electric piano is complimented by Schutz even adopting the phrasing of the man born Gary Anthony James Webb.
A variety of synthbass wobbles, Orchestron choral sweeps and sequenced pulses shape the appropriately robotic ‘Computers’ while with a militaristic offbeat that comes over like mutant chromatic reggae, ‘Internet Of Things’ is a cutely bizarre offering that lyrically highlights the potential downfalls of modern society’s over-reliance on web-connected devices and home appliances.
‘Continuous Interfold’ acts as an abstract art piece before the main act closes with ‘Metatron’ which delightfully goes all Philip Glass with its cacophony of voices. As a bonus, Vince Clarke provides his distinctive studio magic to a remix of ‘Before’, giving it a more percussive mainstream accessibility.
Speaking of which, with fewer of the instrumental interludes that formed a significant part of ‘Buchla & Singing’, ‘Hello Science’ is a much more distinct pop focussed offering with songs kept quite short and on point.
If there is a criticism, it might be there are slightly too many tracks, but it does not disguise the fact that this record is a very enjoyable listen.
Despite the science, the maths, the machines and the tuned vocal aesthetic, there is also flesh and blood that has to work it out and get it all together.